Reading: Motherhood Sucks: Dropping Your Child Off at College

Personal Growth

Motherhood Sucks: Dropping Your Child Off at College

Conflict. Tears. This separation ritual means day-to-day parenting is over. What’s next? 

By Harriet Riley

A friend gave me great advice for saying goodbye to my second (and last) daughter at college drop-off: “Keep it short and wear dark sunglasses.” 

The day I drove my younger daughter to college was the 21st anniversary of my mother’s death. As we drove from Texas across the long Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana on our way to her college in Mississippi, I was suddenly aware that my daughter would not be driving back with me. It was a one-way trip for her. The tears began to well up in my eyes as I drove. I thought of my mother and how she must have felt when she left me — also her youngest — at this very same college. And I thought of how my daughter had been my little helper, my co-parent, and my confidante for the last 18 years. On that drive, we talked about everything from how to arrange her dorm room to some juicy gossip about a friend of hers. We had an unending dialogue that I knew I would deeply miss. 

I sniffled as the tears rolled down my face. Hannah noticed after about 10 miles and said, “Mom, don’t do this.”  

I swallowed and tried to stop. 

So Ready for College Drop-Off
Just the previous day, I had been so ready for my daughter to move out. She was nervous about college and her temper had been short for weeks. She was demanding and critical. Nothing I did was good enough for her. She didn’t like the clothes I wore or the food I cooked. We seemed to fight constantly. She was lashing out at me during the day and staying out late with friends at night. I hadn’t gotten much rest. So I had actually been eager for this day to arrive. But sadness is inevitable. This was a loss. She would never live with me again.

I knew I would still pay all her expenses and fix her favorite food on holiday breaks. But there would be no more daily interactions — good or bad; no more constant awareness of her whereabouts. I slowly realized that I might even go days without thinking of her. For me, this would be a new way of being.

Not So Ready for College Drop-Off
I raised my two daughters on my own. Their father left when they were three and six years old. And before he left, he was never home. He was a heart surgery resident for the first eight years of our marriage and totally engrossed in his work. My first daughter was born just three weeks before my mother died and my second was born three years later. With my mother gone and my husband mostly absent, my daughters were my entire life. I worked outside the home and I had plenty of other interests, but motherhood was my default mode. My daughters became my life’s work.  

motherhood, dropping child off at college

Photo courtesy of Harriet Riley

My daughter and I arrived at her school late the day before college drop-off day. I spent the summer making sure she had everything she wanted — custom-designed bedspreads, color-coordinated lamps, special hangers, even a futon with throw pillows. On Move In Day,  I made the bed (under her close supervision). She carefully organized all her clothes and told me where to put the items I unpacked. Her roommate’s mother hung curtains. We all made a trip to Walmart to stock their small refrigerator. 

The next day came quickly… it was time to leave for the long drive back home. This was it. My daughter wouldn’t even let me come up to the dorm room for one last visit.  She told me not to park my car and, instead, just to pull up to the front of her dorm. She came down to the car where I waited out front, as instructed. It was time for the big send-off. She just leaned her head in the window and said, “Bye, please don’t cry.” Not a hug. Not even a thank you.

I said my very brief goodbye in return and wore my darkest sunglasses just as my friend had advised, but I still felt like my heart was being ripped apart as I drove away. I was crying so hard that I couldn’t see the road in front of me. I had to pull off into a parking lot of an apartment complex.

At that moment, my advice to anyone who might ask was, “Don’t have children. It hurts too much.” 

It’s just too hard. From pre-kindergarten to college to whatever lies ahead, it’s all just one big letting go process. You do all this work; invest all this time and then they just leave. Motherhood sucks, I thought to myself. 

The Parenting Days Are Over. Now What?
As I sat in my car blowing my nose, I realized I was more pissed off than sad. Parenting had been a 24/7 job for the last 21 years. Now it was over. Just like that. It didn’t seem fair.

I remember reading a column by Michael Gerson in The Washington Post. Gerson wrote, “That moment at the dorm is implied at the kindergarten door, at the gates of summer camp, at every ritual of parting and independence. But it comes as surprising as a thief, taking what you value the most.”

He went on to say, “Eighteen years is not enough. A crib is bought. Christmas trees get picked out. There is the park and lullabies and a little help with homework. The days pass uncounted. Until they end. The adjustment is traumatic.” 

Realizing that I had just said goodbye and life would never be the same was earth shattering for me.  The tears kept coming. It felt like my life’s work was over. As I jotted down my thoughts in my parked car, I realized that I would have to now reclaim the person I was before the badge of mother was added to my name.  I was a writer, a professional, focused on career advancement and myself.

As I drove the 10 hours back to my home in Texas, I began to understand that maybe the empty nest would not be such a bad future for me. I had put in the hard time as a mother and was now ready to focus on the things I loved before children took up all my time. I could write. I could travel. I could spend time with friends and family. I had a new life ahead.

My emotions had roller-coasted from sadness to anger to hopeful optimism in the course of a few hours. As I passed back over the Atchafalaya, I actually began to feel elation. My spirits slowly began to soar, and a smile crept onto my face.

Harriet Riley is a New Orleans–based freelance nonfiction writer focusing on personal essays and journalism. She has her MA in print journalism from UT Austin and taught creative writing for 11 years with Writers in the Schools Houston. She has published articles in 64 Parishes, Mississippi Folklife, Minerva Rising, and the Wanderlust anthology. You can reach her on Instagram @hatrireads or on Twitter @hatriri.

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