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Finding Peace in Letting Go When Your Daughter is College-bound

I give one last push and I hear her cry for the first time. The lights are bright, the room is full of people in scrubs…I’ve just spent the last 13 hours in unspeakable pain, but all I can focus on is this precious little being that I get to call mine.

A smiling nurse places her on my chest, wide-eyed and hungry, she latches on. I get a glimpse of her potential…My first baby…so full of possibilities…

One day, she’s going to turn into a woman, leave home, and form a family of her own… 

I must savor every moment. 

We only get 18 summers together, and I’m going to make the most of each one!

Ahhh…

I start to imagine her 18th birthday. 

It will be magical!

We are going to go away for an adventure, maybe Disneyland… 

I’ll teach her to love learning and laughing… to love herself and her family…  

She’ll be honest, happy, and healthy… 

And we’ll be as close as best friends can be…

And after that sacred moment, life did a blurry fast-forward and 17 summers came and went. All of the sudden, it’s 2020 and she’s college-bound!

I found myself sobbing, grieving, standing as if frozen on my driveway after waving goodbye to the college-bound strong girl that once was my sweet firstborn.

She had an early afternoon flight, so it was a hot bright Texas morning, but it felt dark and cold. If there was a soundtrack, it would be “ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone” on repeat.

I went back in the house and for the first time, I didn’t have a motivational speech for my other two daughters. We just sobbed and hugged, until the baby woke up from her nap… and brought the light back.

I tossed and turned that night. Besides the deep sadness in my heart, I felt so much doubt: 

Did I teach her all she needed to learn?

Did I tell her everything she needed to hear?

Did I do enough?

Was I the mom she needed?

Are we best friends? Are we even friends?

Will she miss me?

And over the next few days, I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt …

Our last summer together…  it’s over… and it wasn’t even a magical one… It was more like:

She walks into my room and says: Mom, I am applying to BYU!

And wide-eyed I respond: Wow… hija, I can’t believe it! I’m so proud you’re college-bound!

But… Isn’t that too soon? 

Google Maps says you’ll be 1,161.1 miles away. 

Does that mean you won’t be home for your little sister’s first birthday?

As I saw the determined look on her face, I knew she had made up her mind. She was college-bound and I broke down in tears right in front of her.

The next morning, all I could think of was how many more breakfasts would we have together before she left. I couldn’t imagine a house without Elisha and yet, within minutes, we clear the table and I review her application, give her feedback on her essay, and we schedule her SATs.

When I went back to my room, I didn’t know what to think of the rollercoaster of emotions I was feeling about her being college-bound. I could still hear the sound of her keyboard, and the farewell became more and more real with each click… and more painful.

I cover my face with my hands as a million thoughts race through my mind: Why is this depressing for me?

Am I a horrible mother? Am I not happy for her? Isn’t this what I wanted for her?

I didn’t wanna let go… 

Fast-forward a few weeks and I’m in the middle of writing and she comes to me with a huge, forced smile, announcing:

Mom, I was accepted for an online college I applied for. You’re injured and in constant pain, so I can go to college and still do the driving and help around the house. Plus, I will be close, just like you want me to be…

My heart sank and I felt a tight knot in my stomach. I thought: That’s not what I want. 

I held her hands and looked into her big brown eyes and said: “I want you to go to BYU and follow your dreams! This is what you promised yourself on your 8th birthday.”

“Well, what if I don’t get accepted? Don’t I need a plan B?”

As she stood before me, sitting on the edge of the bed, vulnerable and insecure: I had the opportunity to keep her in the nest for a little longer…and she’d still be college-bound and get an education!

Or I could be the mom I promised to be even before I set foot on that hospital in Camp Pendleton where she came to the world: a selfless, supportive, sensible mom. This was the true test to find out if I could live up to being a positive mom.

I smiled and a deep sense of peace came over me: “Ay hija, you don’t need a plan B. You’re going to get accepted. And my back is better and my foot is healing. 

Plus, there’s Lyft, Amazon, and grocery delivery. Don’t worry about us… We’ll be fine.”

She seemed surprised, which was a wake-up call, and she could only let two words out:

“But mom…”

“No but mom. You’re my homeschool graduate and I’m a superb teacher, so you’re going to get accepted… with scholarships.”

She lay her head on my chest as I sat up on the bed. She’s so much taller than me, and yet, she feels like a 6-pound-20-inch bundle of joy… looking for her mama’s love, approval, and reassurance.

Later that month, she came to my bedside again and exclaimed:

“Mom, I’m freaking out… I received a response from BYU… I don’t want to open it.”

I assured her in her anxiety, and we took a couple of deep breaths together.

“Calm down, mi amor. We know that they wouldn’t pass up on the privilege of having an amazing student like you… and if they do, then, I guess they’re not as awesome as you thought … their loss… pobrecitos…”

She said two words again:

“Oh mom!”

And there it was…The little smile on her face when mom is being so confident it’s ridiculous. 

She read the message out loud…  “Welcome to BYU!”

We screamed, jumped, hugged, and laughed, and cried. She is really college-bound… BYU bound!

And then she proceeds to go on with the check-in dates… 

WHAT? You won’t be here on your 18th birthday?!??! I’ve been robbed!!!

I was half-joking or trying to be, anyway. But then it hit me. I was losing my vision of her 18th birthday… and everything that it meant to me.

And in the blink of an eye, I was on my driveway… watching the car disappear in the distance… the end of an era.

I took comfort in that I was doing the right thing.

The best a mom can give a child is ROOTS and WINGS…

And that she had.

She had the strongest roots and, clearly, unstoppable wings. 

She was so ready to fly away from the nest that she didn’t even cry saying goodbye like I thought she might.

“We’ll talk every day, mom… this is not goodbye!”

Well, there’s that.

Talking every day would make things easier… but that’s not the way the cookie crumbled.

When hours went by and I didn’t hear from her, my anxiety grew stronger. Eventually, hours turned into days and I was worried sick, and sleepless, kind of like when I used to wake up in the middle of the night when she was a baby, and I’d go over her crib just to see if she was breathing…

Only now she was sleeping in a dorm room I had never been to… because it was the middle of a pandemic, I was in recovery, and I had a nursing infant to take care of.

It was hard to embrace my new role and our new relationship… 

I put on a brave face when we talked on the day of her 18th birthday…but I just kept thinking, “I’m not her protector, her caregiver, her mommy anymore.”

She’s now a young adult… with a college ID card and a driver’s license… making decisions of her own… some that I expected, some that I didn’t see coming.

I am now grateful that I didn’t give in to my fear as a mother to hold her back from who she is and who she wants to be. That I could be a safe place for her, even as the fear of losing her broke my heart.

I’ve learned to let go of expectations around what’s supposed to happen on birthdays or Summers… and to simply trust myself as a mom, trust my daughter as a woman, and keep practicing unconditional love.

And it’s all good. I give myself grace. I have 3 more chances… 3 more daughters whose 18th birthdays and journeys will probably look different… and who will be college-bound in their own time.

Even though I may have rained on her parade more times than I wished, the truth is that I modeled for her what it means to honor your feelings…

I don’t want to suppress my emotions so my child doesn’t feel my anxiety… Is that what I want her to do when the going gets tough?

I am glad I didn’t just present a strong positive front, and that my breakdowns demonstrated to her that it’s okay to fall apart when there’s a gaping hole in your heart. I decided to love myself for that. We still love tacos when they fall apart, right?

I cried. I worried. I panicked…. Not because I am a horrible mom, but because that’s the most natural response to any of life’s gut-wrenching moments (not that she was college-bound but that she was apart from me!).

Horrible moms, if they exist, probably don’t cry, worry, or panic about their children, anyway.

That was the best 18th birthday present she received from me… to witness her mom lean into her unpleasant feelings, even if it’s uncomfortable, unreasonable, and painful. To have the courage to process an intense mix of emotions, rather than numbing, ignoring, or bypassing them. 

And now I know she needed this emotional resilience to help her survive a challenging first semester…

Just two months after she packed her suitcases and took flight, she was again laying her head on my chest as I wiped away her tears…seeking my guidance and comfort… because, as it turns out, she’ll always be my baby and I’ll always be her mom.

She didn’t outgrow me. It’s a new chapter for us, an adventure I prepared her for, an unpredictable story that continues to unfold…

Sometimes I’m intrusive, obnoxious, and overbearing because going from “on call” to “no call” takes some getting used to… and she honors that.

And she does miss me, and we are still besties… and we do talk all the time now that she’s adjusted.

Being true to my emotions helped me turn grief into gratitude and now I feel blessed for how our relationship has shifted.

Yes, I still count the sleeps until we are together and our family joys have a tinge of sadness because Elisha is not there to share them with us … but the best part is that when we do get together, it is like the 18th birthday celebration I always wanted…

Because she’s remarkable, fearless, and fierce, and she’s grown up to be what I envisioned and prayed for, in her own way, and so much more!

If you are going through the ups and downs, you are not alone. I want you to know it is possible to find peace when your daughter or son is college-bound and beyond.

Do you have any advice for moms who are struggling to let go? Please share with us in the comments below.

Elayna Fernandez - Bestselling Author - 
Transformational Trainer and Keynote Speaker - Mentor to Mom Entrepreneurs

© Elayna Fernández ~ The Positive MOM
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