An essay on mothering as my son goes off to college
The current tally of items I have “saved” on Facebook is 905. That’s 789 links, 67 videos, 58 photos, two songs, one book and two movies. I’m convinced that someday I’ll make The Perfect Dinner from a saved recipe or write The Most Amazing Poem from a saved headline. It feels good to hold onto them, but everything comes down to what is lacking: time enough.
It’s unsettling like never before: I have a son preparing to go to college. I am hyper-aware of the space inside just above my belly button. It trembles. My core literally shakes.
* * *
One save is an article from NPR: “Bees Added to U.S. Endangered Species List for 1st Time.” It opens by pronouncing this as good news for the bees of Hawaii. Good news? Yes: Congrats, bees. You’re endangered. Of course, the “good news” isn’t that these seven species of bees are at risk but that the designation makes available resources for protecting them.
One of the threats to the endangered yellow-faced bee species in Hawaii is habitat destruction. It’s not that we mean them harm, but we are careless. It’s not that we intend to disregard the warnings, but we are busy. Sadly, many other pollinators (both bees and butterflies) are at risk, as well. NPR notes how their extinction threatens the world’s food supply.
What seems so small isn’t.
* * *
My family’s schedule has always caused me anxiety. The three boys’ jazz band rehearsals start at 6:30 a.m., and we juggle sports practices and games most afternoons and evenings, sometimes past 9. In between band and athletics is a school day for them and an 8-hour work day plus 1-hour commute for me. Day after day, we are crunched for time. The ordinary sensation of that is a dull pain: I ache for a place to rest. But it has a different quality now: vibration? Definitely. Buzzing? Quite possibly.
In addition to the regular constraints of our schedule (what is lacking: time enough), I’m contending with his departure. He leaves for college very soon, and despite broad shoulders and a large 6’3” frame, he will be once again small in the world. And so I worry. It’s not that I believe the world will harm him on purpose (though it may). It’s that the world is careless.
* * *
On my fridge, I have a photo of my son from 13 or 14 years ago holding a baby chick. He’s seated in a chicken coop, cupped hands like a nest. Small as he is, the chick is even smaller. I read on his face a budding capacity for wonder and gratitude. This creature is so precious, and I have the chance to hold it. *I* do. *Me.* It is one of the first times he’s close to his own tenderness for the world. I let myself imagine the photo with this whole planet in the bowl of his hands in place of the chick.
He is careful.
The photo with the chick appears in the senior section of his high school yearbook with a message that gives a nod to the time he spends studying night skies: “How can this be? Our first baby graduating high school! Be kind. Stay curious. Keep your eyes on the Milky Way. The whole universe awaits you.”
And with that, we zoom in from the fluff and feathers in that preschooler’s palms to the dark circle of his retina peering into the eyepiece of a telescope. His vision stretches to the rings of Saturn. I am dizzied by the size and speed of it. Above all this spinning, our galaxy shows itself as a splash of stars. Somehow, it holds us. It’s indifferent, of course, but I let myself feel held. I let myself imagine we are precious.
* * *
A vast universe awaits him. And simultaneously, the space my oldest and I occupy together shrinks. While that’s exactly what it’s supposed to do, it feels a little bit like a threat to my habitat. My core literally shakes.
I am like a hive there’s so much vibration. It shakes loose new grief about the divorce from my son’s father. Habitat was threatened then, too. And though eventually, we gained strength as parents in the new dual household family, the oldest son’s looming departure exposes the arrangement’s limitations all over again.
Is everything shrinking?
Soon, there won’t be 52 weeks of him to divide. Instead, we’ll be vying for his presence during rare long weekends, holiday breaks and short summer months. Like bees in the Northeast corner of the continental U.S., we’ll have a narrow window of sunlight to gather him up. Even the longest days of the year won’t be sufficient. It’s not that we intended to disregard the warnings, but we were busy.
* * *
The paradox is that I have no desire to keep him from what comes next. I can easily access the elation I felt as my own first year of college approached. The dual energies of leaving home and beginning to tend, for the first time, to the idea of becoming were so attractive I could barely contain them. I was buzzing then, too.
He’s as ready now as I was, but I think back to how his response to kindergarten blindsided all of us. He couldn’t wait to get there, but when the first day arrived, we had to push him onto that bus. Every day for a few weeks, he ate lunch beside his teacher in the classroom instead of with friends in the cafeteria (where they kept finding him sobbing).
I do not expect him to hesitate that way when it’s time for him to head into the dorm without us. I do not expect I’ll have to strong arm him through those doors. I picture instead myself extending a pair of cupped hands. Standing inside them, this boy. An offering I make. I picture on my face the strain of intense emotion which I’ll later understand as my own expanded capacity for wonder and gratitude. I am dizzied by the size and speed of it.
This creature is so precious, and I have had the chance to hold it.
* * *
The bees’ endangered species designation makes available special protections for small patches of land where the Fish and Wildlife Service will “limit harm from outside sources.” Habitat protections. Small patches of land. Space. One way to save the bees is to make space for them.
And so I hold the small space that remains and guard our capacity for tenderness. Just as the eyepiece of the telescope contains the planets, this space is our new universe. No matter how much it shrinks in comparison to the rest of his world, this is my job: hold the space and steady the lens.
May what seems small not be.
I’d originally worked on this essay about a year ago and kept fine-tuning it with the hopes of placing it in a literary magazine. I only sent it out a couple of times. While there was interest in seeing future work, the piece itself didn’t get picked up, and I decided not to try additional outlets for one main reason: this essay is important to me right now. The timing of it matters to me. He’s leaving now, not in a year or two after I place the piece. And so I’m putting it in the world now. Feel free to share it with others launching their babies!
Also, if you liked this post, you may like this one about the intersection of my interests (poetry) with my son’s (astronomy/physics).