Tears of What, Exactly? Taking My Daughter to College

(Photo: Courtesy of Dori Fern)

The crying jags started the day my daughter Amira turned 18.  All of her best girlfriends came over for dinner. They are friends she’s had since elementary school, a couple from high school and a few others from camp who came all the way to Brooklyn from upstate New York and Connecticut just to celebrate her birthday. There was a big strawberry shortcake and a strawberry cheesecake, because I couldn’t decide which one to make, and one of her friends made her a headband with a strawberry on top.

Strawberries are her favorite.

When Amira blew out the candles, I realized this would likely be the last time all these beautiful, wonderful girls would be together.  Girls I’ve watched grow up into women.  I cried watching her blow out the candles, which was sappy and sentimental and I hate being so… obvious, but I couldn’t help myself.

Two months and a day later, Amira left before dawn to drive down to college in New Orleans with her father and stepmother and my son. I hugged her tight, told her I loved her and I knew she would do great. Of course, I cried again.

I don’t typically cry much. Milestone birthdays and big goodbyes are the stuff of tears. But the sneaky, random and effusive nature of crying always takes me by surprise.

I’m watching a couple of girls, about seven or eight years old, play in my local cafe while their parents chat. The father of one of the girls starts to leave with his daughter but, before they go, the girls give each other a hug: a big, deep “I love you so much” hug that young girls, with their big, deep feelings, often like to give each other.

When Amira was little, she and her best friend, Claire, used to give each other hugs like that all the time. They spent countless hours together, playing make believe, often in Prospect Park, while Claire’s mom and I hung out and played together, too. Those were glorious days, during what was otherwise a challenging decade of being a stay-at-home mom, the hardest full-time job I’ve ever had and one I didn’t always, or even mostly, enjoy very much.

As the father leaves, he passes my table and I reach out to introduce myself. We’ve been next-door neighbors for over a year and have never formally met. I start to tell him how much that girl hug reminds me of my own big girl, who left this morning for college and I start to cry, in front of this man I am just meeting for the first time. Sobbing, heaving…the works. Truly embarrassing. I’m crying now just thinking about it.

The weekend before Amira left, I was at the farmer’s market with my friend, Karen, whose daughter, Avery spent the summer working with Amira as a camp counselor in the Catskills. On this morning after their return, Karen and I bitched about how both girls were more interested in hanging out with their friends than either a) packing for college or b) hanging out with their dear old moms (because of course when we were their age, we surely would’ve been doing those things).

Mother and daughter can both be incredibly bull-headed. We are different and the same in so many ways that don’t always work.

While we kvetched, our girls appeared in front of us at the market with another friend, happy and bubbly to see each other — and even us.  They stayed with us for a while and when it was time to part, Avery and Amira realized that this was likely to be the last time they would see each other before they both went their respective ways. As girlfriends do, they hugged. And they cried. And then Karen and I looked at each other, standing at a farm stand leaning over a bin of shallots, and we started crying too.

Minutes after everyone had gone separate ways, my ex-husband called to discuss the serious business of Amira’s Not Packing. I said that maybe she’s in a bit of denial about the whole leaving-for-college thing and relayed the story about the goodbye with Avery and, again, I start blubbering on the phone. Alarmed and not tracking with me, he asks what’s wrong and I assure him it’s nothing, but I can see his smirk through the phone when he tells me: “You’re such a chick.”

There have also been terribly challenging times raising this fiercely independent girl of mine, the one who tossed off her blanket the first time she was swaddled in the hospital bassinet. Mother and daughter can both be incredibly bull-headed. We are different and the same in so many ways that don’t always work.

Intellectually, I understand and appreciate the letting go part of parenting. When she was 16 and bucking everything in her way (especially me), I understood that the much bigger, stronger and more irascible version of her three-year-old self was saying “ I DO IT!” and now I needed to let her, for better or worse.

So it wasn’t so surprising that when I met her to say goodbye, the first thing she did was stick out her forearm and — with a proud, shit-eating grin — showed me the strawberry plant tattoo she had gotten the night before.

When you “lose” your toddler in the playground — they duck behind a tree or wander somewhere they shouldn’t — the visceral fear of separation is irrational and animalistic. MUST PROTECT CHILD. This person has come from your body and now you can’t see them or feel their presence and there is a wild feeling of chaos until they are again within your physical airspace.

When I cry, I don’t feel especially sad or happy about any one thing. While I appreciate the reassurances I’ve gotten from friends and my own mom: “She’ll come back. She’ll be fine,” they aren’t telling me anything I don’t already know. Maybe she’ll come back, hopefully she’ll be fine. I believe these things are true, because I trust her and I have faith in her and because I need to, but I am also pragmatic and fatalistic enough to know that life gives you no guarantees. I cry not because of any insecurity about those things, because I’m truly excited for her and her new adventure and to see what she will do with her life.

My tears are all about me, really, because I am her mother and my role is partly different now and partly still the same and I am a little bit scared of the unknown, of what I cannot — and really never could — control.

Tell Us in the Comments

What do you think?

9 Responses

  1. Editor’s Note: Can I Sit Here? | Tue Night

    […] Dori Fern sends her daughter off to college. And cries. A lot. […]

  2. Wendy Goldman Scherer

    I know, partly happy and party sad and partly excited and party scared beyond words. It’ll be okay! Love your post. Hang in there!

  3. LaurenYoung1

    I’m crying, too. And my son still has to make it through Middle School and High School. Go, Amira!

  4. laura

    Oh Dori, this is so eloquent… so says the person, never a crier, who now does just that (on more occasions than she’d like to admit) all because of a four-year-old in her life. I will be calling up this piece again in another 14 years (which I know will be here in a blink).

  5. dorifern

    @laura Four-year-olds are not dissimilar to 18 year olds, in that they’ve typically come through this kind of exhausting/awful year and a half or so of head-butting at every turn. Glad you enjoyed this!

  6. erover

    Dori: Thank you. It is wonderful to read about your insights, stumbles, emotions and perspective. Thanks for sharing. Elena

  7. dorifern

    LaurenYoung TueNight Thanks Lauren!

  8. poppyafter4

    TueNight dorifern Tears of joy, happiness, sadness, anxiety, concern. But you raised here right, so it’s time to let her soar. #BeenThere

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