As I drove up the ramp and gradually merged onto the highway heading home, I felt the first pangs of sadness that I had been trying to stave off all afternoon. The emergence of these feelings was no surprise, but I hoped that this time I might be spared the melancholy that sets in each time I drop my daughter back off at college.
Summer was over and this daughter of mine, the oldest and most independent of my three children, was happy to be back at the school she loves and ready to begin her junior year. I knew I would miss her a lot, but that was okay. I was comforted by the knowledge that she is happy and in her element at school: busy, intellectually challenged and part of a close community of friends.
The familiar gloom had more to do with echoes of my own youth, as well as questions about the years to come. Each autumn as a chill sets in and the school buses take up their rounds, my own memories surface. I am reminded of the underlying loneliness that often followed me through my teenage years and peaked during college. Even though I had many good friends and was usually in a relationship, I always felt that something was missing.
I wanted a home and a family. Ever since I was a child playing with dolls, my fantasies for the future focused on marriage and motherhood, and I never grew out of the longing for both. As the youngest child in a large family, I felt lost in a chaotic household. I yearned to nurture my own children in the kind of safe and comforting environment I never had.
While I look forward to this time with my husband and the freedom it will bring, the idea of life without kids in the house also depresses and scares me.
I met my future husband at the age of 21 and we married three years later. When he landed his first real job out of graduate school, we moved into an apartment in a quaint Connecticut town. I found a job nearby and we adopted a shelter dog named Katie who hiked the hilly woods with us on weekends. Each evening as Katie and I strolled the neighborhood after work, I looked longingly through the windows of the houses we passed, their interiors glowing and cozy by lamplight. I yearned to have a real home, too, to cook with my husband in our own kitchen and let Katie out to run and sniff in a big backyard that we mowed on weekends.
A year or two later, my dream began to take shape. We moved into a small antique home (not our wisest financial investment, by the way) in a picturesque, family-oriented town. Our house had a backyard with a babbling brook and there was a dairy farm at the end of our country road. Katie loved our new life and so did we. Happily, my lifelong yearning for motherhood became a reality when our first child arrived three years later. We were overjoyed.
Within a few years, we welcomed a son and another daughter and moved into a larger house across town. In the months that followed the birth of our third child, I remember feeling ridiculously happy and hardly able to fathom my good fortune. I was now the mother of three healthy, delightful children and married to a devoted husband and father. I had everything I’d ever wanted — and I knew it.
Raising our family over these last 20 years has been immeasurably rewarding and challenging: a messy, exhausting, glorious undertaking. It has also been a wonderful ride; the toughest, best and most rewarding adventure of my life.
Which is why, riding solo down the highway that afternoon, I felt a tugging sadness. It came from the thought that in three years, my youngest child would go off to college and leave her dad and me alone in the house. While I look forward to this time with my husband and the freedom it will bring, the idea of life without kids in the house also depresses and scares me. When I consider that I never felt complete until we brought these three uniquely wonderful people into the world, I fear that I will once again feel an emptiness once they are no longer part of our daily lives.
The reminder of my passenger-less car eroded the last of my reserves and the tears began to flow.
As I drove along in contemplation, I noticed a sign approaching that indicated the carpool lane, which would soon be approaching: “Two or more persons per vehicle,” it read, causing me to flinch a little. The reminder of my passenger-less car eroded the last of my reserves and the tears began to flow. I was already feeling nostalgic for the drive my daughter and I had made that morning, my big old mini van full of her clothes, books and linens. I had been glad to steer us into the HOV lane and glide along without the need to navigate traffic.
Now, that option was closed to me and I was forced to drive on the main road with everyone else. The carpool lane traveled alongside me at first, then curved off to the left and eventually stretched away, out of my peripheral vision. I took a breath and wiped my eyes. I willed myself to look toward my future with acceptance, and a belief in my own resilience. By the time I arrived home two hours later, I was getting there.
Walking through the door, I was welcomed by two excited dogs, a pair of sweet teenagers, and my husband — who hugged me while I wept quietly into his shoulder. He’s used to these tearful moments by now, and he knows how deep my attachment will always be to our children. While he respects the depth of my emotions, he is confident that we will be fine when the day finally comes and the last of our children leaves home.
We will miss our kids’ daily presence, but our ties to them are strong and permanent. Of course, they will still need us in varying degrees for many years and we will always be a family. When our youngest daughter goes to college, my husband and I will be busy with our careers, our friends, and a deeper focus on each other. I’m not fully comforted by this understanding yet, but I’m getting there. In so many ways, I am a different person than I was before motherhood: stronger, more mature and comfortable in my own skin. The truth is that I am not likely to feel lost ever again, especially with my husband joining me for the trip — and helping me qualify to drive in that darn carpool lane.