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Back to School: The Joys and Sorrows

The back-to-school flurry is stressful for all parents, but it should be a lesson in gratitude as well. Here, an empty nester reflects on her own journey.
Last Updated
April 22, 2019
posted on
September 14, 2016
Minute Read

For all of you mothers who got to buy pencils, five-subject notebooks and calculators this year, rejoice. You are the lucky ones.

Forget about the bill or worrying about shifting the kids’ sleep schedules to accommodate early morning school days, the years that you do these things will come to an end too soon.

I know.

I know. I still remember dropping off my youngest at college just a few years ago.

As we drove the eight-hour trek, ate pretzels and drank Diet Coke, we talked about our eighteen years together.

I asked him the tough questions. What would he have done differently? What did he think I should have done differently? Had he really minded when I was away on work trips? His answers were sobering.

He might have played hockey instead of soccer or practiced drums more. And me? Perhaps he was in a sentimental mood, but he insisted that I hadn’t traumatized him too much.

In his boyish curt mannerism, he said, “Mom, I loved my childhood.” When he said this, I burst into tears which flowed for 48 hours.

What he was telling me was that life, as we have always known it together, was over. Sure, he would always be my only son, the one who was left behind with me when his older sisters went off to college or got married. He and I always stayed behind. But now, I would stay behind and he would become absorbed in a whole new life.

After we set up his room (I insisted on making up his bed) and pestered him that he really did want me to make curtains for the one tiny window in his room, I busied myself with menial tasks.

We went to the grocery store together, to meetings for the Engineering students and to the bank. Everywhere we went on campus, I scoured students to see if they were friendly. As the hours passed, the internal ache intensified and I felt him pulling away. He had to.

This was our time to become a different sort of team. We were no longer buddies connected at the hip, he was a man and I was his mother. He needed more respect and a stronger love now. It was the deeper love that allowed me to smile through my tears and let him go.

During our last moments, I picked up a pair of his shorts on his dorm room floor and noticed a large ketchup stain. “Did you bring Shout?” I demanded.

He hadn’t. I needed to do something about it. As I held the dirty shorts in my hand, I looked at him and he smiled back. I threw the crumpled pants on the floor and started to cry. The stain wasn’t my problem. It was his now. Every problem, every joy, every decision was on his shoulders. He didn’t need me there.

One last time, I grabbed his wide shoulders and squeezed him hard and we said good-bye. I felt as though someone had tied a rope around my heart and was pulling it out of my chest. Leaving him and our relationship as it had always been hurt terribly. This was a new time for him and for me. I didn’t want it, but it was here and I had to embrace it.

For all of us who are empty nesters, we must take heart. Life will be good if we choose it to be. And for you who are tired of complaining kids and weary of sibling rivalry, embrace these struggles well enough to see past them. I promise, these days will end and you will most likely have a hard time remembering them.

Dr. Meg Meeker, MD

Practicing pediatrician, parent, grandparent, coach, speaker, and author. Say hello @MegMeekerMD

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