I recently received an invitation to attend a parent letter-writing event on freshman move-in day at my son’s university. From what I understand, parents gather to write letters to their kids, and representatives from the college will deliver them later in the semester. The invitation describes the event as “bittersweet” and features a photo of a mother wiping tears from her eyes with a tissue while a male administrator in a college logo shirt looks on with a condescending grin. I thought, why not cap off the day with a double feature of “Terms of Endearment” and “Love Story”?
I know the university has the best intentions, but really, do they think anyone actually enjoys sobbing openly in a room full of strangers? An event like this, targeted so clearly at mothers, isn’t about the letters, and it’s not about our kids: It’s about the weepy spectacle of writing them on what we’re supposed to think is the saddest day ever, even though some of us might actually handle the occasion as well as the fathers are expected to.
After all, our kids aren’t entering a labor camp or leaving for military service in a dangerous country. They are going to college — in my son’s case, a college with so many amenities that he says all the campus is missing is a NASA space center.
Yes, I’ll miss him. I’ll miss him a ton. But I’m also happy for him, and a little jealous.
The narrative we encounter again and again is that mothers are fragile creatures and that the only proper response to our empty nest is dread. My Facebook feed is choked with woebegone tales of struggle with impending loss. Almost every day I see articles and essays promoted or shared in my online community. It seems the sadder the article, the more viral it becomes.
There are entire parenting communities dedicated to the topic of letting go. Mostly female writers express their feelings about the hours of child-rearing never having been long enough, or they reveal that the idea of separation makes them “sad down to their bones.” They share what they’ll miss most about watching their kid play sports or offer advice about the right and wrong things to say at drop-off, and how to deal with the pain of selling the backyard swing set.
You’d think that their poor children are about to vaporize! You might also think that, along with forgetting the torture of labor, these parents have also forgotten the horrors of redeeming tickets for toys at Chuck E. Cheese, temper tantrums, sleepless nights, stepping on Legos, wet towels, lost gloves, balled-up socks between their couch cushions, missed curfews, fender benders and the discovery of watered-down vodka in the liquor cabinet.
Yet as move-in day approaches, we mothers are supposed to hang out in our children’s soon-to-be empty bedrooms and wring our hands like characters in sentimental Victorian novels, soaking their Pottery Barn Kids comforters in our tears.
It’s not that I’m cool about the upcoming transition. I was a mess on his last day of high school and again on graduation day, and every now and then the reality of his leaving hits me like a gut punch. I feel what all mothers feel, including excitement. Why is there so much pressure on women to feel negative and sad at every single transition in our children’s lives?
My son has hair on his chest. It’s time for him to move on to something else. He’s ready, he’s worked hard, and college is what he wants. I recognize that he’s extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to attend, which is why, perhaps, I resist wallowing in these public lamentations about the pain of separation. They sometimes sniff of self-congratulation. This is a privileged form of parenting sadness, like complaining your lawn takes too long to mow because it’s so big.
The closer we get to move-in day, the louder the chorus, the sadder the moms. Well, not all the moms. One of my friends, a seasoned empty nester, leaned close and whispered in my ear: “True confession: It’s really not so bad. Sometimes it’s actually pretty great.”
I noticed she felt she needed to whisper.
Christi Clancy lives in Madison, Wis. She has two children, and she teaches English at Beloit College. Her short stories and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Milwaukee Journal and in Glimmer Train Stories. She’s completing a novel.