The Senior Year: One Mother’s Countdown to an Empty Nest

My mind hadn’t yet wrapped itself around the central purpose of our trip. I was too absorbed in pre-research, planning the visit and confirming the date, and then when that day arrived, too preoccupied whipping around early morning traffic snags so we could get there on time. We made it from DC to Philly in two and a half hours with barely 20 minutes to spare before our tour started, but I stopped Girl Child before she walked up the steps to the admissions building to document the moment with pictures. OK, two. OK, probably more like seven.

It was her first college tour, and as I was chain-clicking the button on the camera and she was scowling in the sunlight and huffing and shifting her weight in agitated protest, the thoughts finally crystalized. 

We’re on a college tour. 

In Philly. 

Two and a half hours away from home. 

Sweet baby Jesus.

My baby is getting ready to leave me.

And for a quick minute, I was all Florida Evans inside because this is it. Senior year, the last quarter of the high school experience before Girl Child has the audacity to graduate and start her adventures in young adulting, if only for semesters at a time. If her Plan A unfolds—and I’m praying it does, because she deserves it and I want it for her—she’ll be admitted to the University of the Arts, she’ll invest in her gift of dance and she’ll spend her days on pointe. 

The realness of it has nudged itself up to the front of my mind, particularly this summer, since the natural question for adults to ask a kid on break what grade they’ll be entering when the new school year starts. Girl Child, who’s never really an eager participant in any kind of personal education discussion, now beams and says she’s a senior. The person doing the asking usually recoils in disbelief. That can’t be right. They remember when she was this big or that high. Some of them even remember when I was this big or that high. Inevitably, the next statement in this script is directed to me. 

“Oooh, she’s just about done, Mom. You’re almost free! What are you gonna do with yourself when she’s gone?”

It’s a joke, so I chuckle and make some offhanded remark about turning her room into a Carrie Bradshaw shoe closet. But when I’m alone and turned inward on my thoughts, it’s a real question. I sit in our home sometimes, no TV or radio on, listening to what it’s going to sound like with no Mommy-can-I or can-you-buy-more-Cinnamon-Toast-Crunch making up the soundtrack of our household. I’ve let her grow up in incremental milestones that hinted at the reality that she was eventually going to graduate and go, like allowing her to take the Metro and bus by herself, initially to school, and now to her first job at the mall (even though I still insist on picking her up when she gets off at 10). But I’ve been Mommy since I was 19. I was still growing up the same time I was raising someone else and, because of that, my identity is all tangled up in being a parent. 

So the answer is I don’t have an answer. I really don’t know. My therapist is hearing all about it, this shaky transition I’m getting ready to make from single parent to empty nester that came up so quickly. I don’t want to do or say anything to limit her. As much as I’ll miss her, I want her to go far and live big experiences and make her own decisions, knowing already that I won’t agree with some of them and wondering in advance which ones those will be and praying, like mamas do, that they’re not devastating missteps.

This year will be busy, scheduling her audition pieces and senior activities. It’s a welcome, if not temporary, panacea for my motherly woes. First day of school is about to happen, and I will cry. I know that already because I almost always do. But this is the big one. I’ve had 12 years to prepare for it but I’m still so very unprepared.

In the meantime, we’re cutting up like we always do, laughing and taking the coming change in chunks, one completed application, one scholarship essay, one college tour at a time. We have a running joke about how long and wild my praise shout is going to be when she walks across that stage because as quickly as senior year got here, it was marked with a mighty long stretch of parent-teacher meetings and little girl carpools, endless homework reminders and flashcard making, late-night memorization drills and bickering over last-minute projects. And it’s been the best work I’ve ever done. 

Janelle Harris is a writer, single mother, southeast DC girl, Lincoln University alumna and a whole bunch of other things that won’t fit into a byline. Chat her up on Facebook or Twitter.