The Last First: Getting Ready to Let My Kids Go | Off to College

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The Last First: Getting Ready to Let My Kids Go

As my oldest prepares to leave for college, I try to find the woman I'll be when I'm not defined as a mom

By Elisabeth Catuogno

I’m counting backward a lot these days. My oldest is 18 and about to graduate after his five years of Italian secondary school and head off to university in August. My calendar is full of his firsts, and they’ve come fast and furious this past year. First college open day, first standardized test, first driving test (he passed!), first trip away with his friends, first bank account, first formal event, first college acceptance, first enrollment date, first move-in date. 

Not to mention all the other firsts that don’t show up on my calendar, but that he’s shared with me over the years in his open and funny way. First crush, first drink, first joint, first job, first suit, and tie, first time he was able to talk about some heavy stuff with his father.

But the last first sits like a ticking time bomb in my Google account. His last first day of school that I’ll be around for, even marginally. I’ll be dropping him off in a whole other country for orientation at the end of August, and frankly, I’m a wreck. 

Has our Nest Always Been Half Empty?

I’ve been a single mom since my youngest was 18 months old. And when I say single I mean on. My. Own. My two kids and I have always been a tight-knit team, with their father being completely out of the picture for most of their childhoods, and only resurfacing peripherally since they’ve been teenagers. While it was tough a lot of the time to be their everything, it has also meant that I always got to be the one to be there for all of their firsts. Two-wheelers, motorbikes, and now cars. Swim meets, trophies, and awards. First days of school and report cards. Shoelaces, cleats, and high heels. Haircuts, acne, and piercings. Sharing new (to them) books and films and museums. Travel — so much travel together — being there the first time they experienced new countries, new languages, new food. First awarenesses, disappointments, heartbreaks, and growth — I’ve had the privilege of being there for all of it.

And now my sweet boy is a young man and heading off to start a new life in a new country with new people I’ll never meet. A whole new world of firsts that I won’t get to witness. Of course, I’m thrilled and proud and excited for him, but I’m having a really hard time absorbing just how fast it’s all gone by. I can’t believe that the first time I changed his diaper wasn’t just yesterday, the first toddling steps he took away from me weren’t almost two decades ago. I already miss him so much. And my damned iPhone isn’t helping, offering up a tender memory on my home screen almost every day.

In a few short months, my daughter and I will be a unit of two for the first time, and we’ll have a whole new dynamic to get used to, with all of the 16-year-old drama mixed in with it. Though the circumstances are bittersweet, I’m really hoping these next three years on our own together will be special, without her older brother’s firsts overshadowing hers, and claiming so much of the spotlight.

But I’m already counting backward from her last first at home with me and feeling bereft. 

So much has been written about empty nesters, about how parents can rediscover their own interests and each other once the kids have flown the coop. Most of the so-called experts recycle the same obvious clichés. “Take up hobbies together! Go on date nights! Travel! Have loud sex!” I’ve not seen much advice for single parents though, beyond “Start dating!” which misses the point entirely. If that was desirable or possible in our individual lives, we would have gotten there on our own by now. For a lot of different reasons, partnering up isn’t necessarily the magic bullet for single empty nesters — and there’s so much more to us than our single status. 

How to Deal With Empty Nest as a Single Parent

Single-parent families are different, our relationships with our kids are different, and if we’re lucky we’ve gotten to know and enjoy each other in ways that two-parent families often don’t, since there isn’t a couple relationship impacting the parent-child dynamic. But that begs the question, what does my family look like once my kids have had their last firsts at home with me? Should I become a cat lady?

I live in a small town in Italy and have a great community, a career I enjoy, wonderful friends, the best dog in the world, and lots of interests. I’m not far from a major airport and love to travel. I’m sure I’ll be fine on my own. But that last, last first on my calendar looms and I choke up just thinking about it. Which is new for me; I’m usually more dispassionate. Through my tears, I try to think about what new firsts life holds for me as a woman once I no longer have my kids at home to define me as a mother. It’s the first blank page in a new notebook, full of possibilities and trepidation, and it’s up to me to fill it. But I’ll give myself the grace to wallow in the melancholy too. After all these years as a full-time single mom, it’s something I can do for just me, and it’s a start.


Elisabeth Catuogno is a tech marketer, a mother, and a petwear entrepreneur living in Italy. She’s happy to share her personal and professional reinvention journey with the women of CoveyClub.

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