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Gwen Rockwood: Parents can't help but worry when their baby bird flies off to college

by Gwen Rockwood | January 21, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

Five days ago, I pushed my cart through Target and willed myself not to cry. This is ridiculous, I thought. I cannot have an emotional meltdown in the middle of Target.

I blinked back the tears that were threatening to spill over, and I got on with the task of buying the last few things my 19-year-old son would need for his first dorm room. After being forced to do a semester of remote learning from home because of the pandemic, he would finally be able to move to his college campus and start a new adventure.

But there was no denying that I felt like a human pinata. One hard whack and I just might burst wide open -- a mixture of memories and fears spilling out of me like brightly colored candies.

After my trip to Target, we drove three hours to his new college town and checked into a hotel. He was scheduled for a covid-19 test early the next morning -- a new part of the move-in process during this unusual freshman year.

When I opened my eyes on move-in day, the first thought in my head was this question: "What was it like the day we brought Adam home from the hospital after he was born?" I flipped through the millions of images in my maternal memory bank, but I couldn't find it. How was it possible that I couldn't think of a specific memory from that day -- a big day in the life of any new parent.

I rolled over in bed and whispered to Tom, asking if he remembered the day. He said, "Yeah, I remember trying to put the infant carrier into the backseat. We were driving the white car back then."

But I still couldn't remember any details, and I worried out loud that my memory was already failing even though I'm not even 50 yet. All I remember were feelings -- the enormous responsibility of carrying around what felt like the most precious, fragile egg in the world, worrying we might accidentally fail to protect it.

I remember how almost everything suddenly felt like a threat to our baby's safety -- driving too fast, letting him sleep without watching his chest rise and fall. Even something as silly as an unattended butter knife left out on the kitchen counter felt menacing, as if it might somehow fly up and pierce this breakable baby who was so completely dependent on us. Protect, provide, preserve. That was my new purpose in life. It had seemed easier to do when the baby was tucked safely in my womb. When he moved outside my body, everything got more complicated.

Maybe I woke up thinking about it because that day and the moving-to-college day felt oddly similar, like emotional bookends. We were moving him out of our home and into his first dorm. How can we protect, provide and preserve while he is so far away from us?

I don't have the answers to that question, and I'm beginning to think I never will. A parent's ability to protect kids from hurt or harm exists more in our own minds than it does in reality. I'm trying to learn how to live with the uncomfortable knowledge that I can't control everything or be prepared for everything or even know what might happen next -- good or bad. I can only hope, pray and trust that we'll all do the best we can, come what may.

My mission for this week is to endure the pang of loss I feel in my chest when I walk past his empty bedroom. And to resist the temptation to text or call him a ridiculous number of times during the day. And to embrace the joy of hearing about this new life he is making for himself.

This new journey, for him and for us as his parents, comes with uncertainty and will require courage -- at least enough to make it through Target without tears.

Gwen Rockwood is a syndicated freelance columnist. Email her at [email protected] Her book is available on Amazon.

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