I should start off by saying that I became a mother long before I gave birth.
I was three and a half years old when my mother left me in the care of a prostitute in the impoverished village of Pavia, Italy. My mother, Pierina, did not travel across the roads of life easily. In turn, neither did I. By the time I was twelve, I had grown accustomed to spending days in isolation with neither heat nor food while my mother’s flirtation with alcohol and meth skyrocketed into the most committed relationship she’d ever had. She was frequently inebriated, often delirious, and terminally depressed. I did my best to care for her but I was hopeless. I was lost. I was also determined to find a far less rocky road.
So by the time my daughter Isabella arrived, I had not only secured the benchmarks of success—I’d immigrated to the United States, learned English, French, and Spanish (along with my native Italian), received a master’s degree, risen to top sales-executive positions for two of the most acclaimed companies in the world, married a wonderful man, and bought a home—I was tired. No, I was exhausted.
I was also unwavering in my commitment to raising my daughter under completely different circumstances than I was reared in. She would be comfortable, safe, happy, educated, well fed, and warm. From the first moment I held Isabella in my arms and touched the fragile, pink curve of her ear, I was smitten. I would be unyielding in my decision to give her the best possible life, I promised myself.
Then the inevitable happened. My daughter, my life, left for college.
Most parents believe this is a cause for celebration. And yes, I wanted my daughter to go to college, find a fulfilling career, a partner in crime, a home, perhaps children of her own.
I just wanted her to do all of this next door.
Mind you, I’m Italian by birth, and we Italians, I’m convinced, are wired differently. In Italy, kids never leave home—I was the exception. And if they do leave home, they move next door, or, in extreme cases, to the other side of town—which happens to be three kilometers away. Isabella’s decision to attend a college not only in a different zip code but what felt like a different time zone was like learning that my next phase in life would be that of a caterpillar. In essence, I would be, well, devolving.
When she left, I didn’t allow myself to sink into depression. Instead, I went into Manic Panic Mode. I threatened divorce and left on an extended vacation, where all I did was window-shop for baby clothes and eat grilled-cheese sandwiches. I looked for a new house to buy. I redecorated in bold, offensive colors. I got my advanced scuba certification in Indonesia. I volunteered at the Humane Society, spent weeks researching adopting an infant from Kenya, worked out at the gym until my limbs felt like they would fall off. I. Did. Not. Stop.
Then the frenzy ended, and with it came a torrent of tears. Every time I came home, the silence of the empty space scorned me, and I fixated on cleaning the house and filling the fridge, just in case Isabella made a surprise trip home. I cried every time someone asked me how I was doing. I cried every time I walked into a grocery store and noted that my list was only half as long. I cried when I saw her half-empty box of Honey Bunches of Oats in the pantry. I cried when I walked past the photo I’d taken of her on the beach in Mexico when she was five. I cried when our waiter at the Italian café down the street got my order wrong, when I received a parking ticket, when we were out of milk. When the sun was too hot and the rain was too cold and the wind was too goddamned windy.
I cried because the only person I had to mother any longer was myself, and she was behaving badly.
The old adage is true, of course. Eventually, the tears subsided and in teeny, tiny steps, I came around. I stopped having cake for breakfast. I took up cooking again. Books and newspapers started to make sense once more, rather than being the jumble of black-and-white writing that seemed to demand ransom for Isabella’s unharmed return. With time, I was able to walk around the home I’d created with my husband and daughter without breaking down into hysterics, feeling and thinking that everything in this world is so intangible, such an ephemeral, fleeting thing.
I’m now in my second year of having a daughter living a life of her own at a college that isn’t a block away—it’s a seven-hour drive away, a $300 airline ticket away. And while I miss her intensely, I’ve reached a point where I can actually enjoy myself. I can sleep in late. I can walk in the woods for hours. I can watch an Italian film, without subtitles, and laugh myself silly. I can fall into a novel without having to worry about picking up Isabella from soccer practice on time. And I do.
What have I gleaned from this? Plenty. I now know, with unshakable certainty, that this rite of passage is huge—for parents as much as for children. Along with this I’ve learned that self-love is as important as the love we give our children, the siblings we’ve sibling-ed, the mothers we’ve mothered. Embracing the empty nest—no matter if it takes weeks, months, years—is in the end an opportunity for growth, for connecting to our inner child in a way that very few talk about. Love is all—for others, but just as much for ourselves. It’s downright terrifying seeing your kid leave, but it’s also exhilarating to find out who you might become in their absence.
“What will become of me once they leave?” a friend whose children are on the verge of leaving for college recently asked while she and I and another friend were out hiking.
“I don’t know,” the second replied, in all seriousness, and our friend’s face dropped. “After so many years of neglecting my career and caring for them and for the family and the house, who is going to hire me? Especially at this age?”
“No kidding,” the first went on. “What will I put on my résumé? ‘Professional laundry folder’?”
They went on like this, fretting, anxiety gripping their voices, as I walked away, the sunlight filtering through the fog and washing over me like grace. I thought back to the last time I’d seen Isabella on my monthly visit, and how she’d given me her cardigan during a movie because she thought I was cold. I’ve done well, I thought as I took the sweater from her outstretched hand and our fingers collided in the bowl of popcorn between us.
What will become of us? I can’t tell you for sure. But goodness, is it going to be fun finding out.
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