Amidst all the COVID-19 chaos, one bit of normalcy dominated the fall for my family: the college application process.
My older son, a senior at Notre Dame, spent almost every moment of free time writing essays, completing the Common App (a single application used by most colleges that streamlines much of the application process), gathering teacher recommendations, and meticulously navigating the application process. It was alternately nerve-wracking and exciting as I watched my young fledgling perched on the very edge of his future, stretching his wings and preparing to fly.
As of this moment, we don’t know which direction he’ll be flying in, but I cannot wait to see him taking off.
I know not all moms of seniors feel this way and are struggling right now with the idea of sending their younglings out into the world. I’ve talked to several Chattanooga mamas who’ve expressed a desire for their sons or daughters to stay close and attend the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga or the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. At the sole college night we had last year before the end of the world set in, one father who spoke, recommended keeping your kids within a four-hour drive in case you need to reach them quickly and so they can easily come home on the weekends.
I have no argument with that approach, but as someone who went to school, out of state, and a skosh more than four hours from my home, I love imagining the possibilities for my (not so) baby bird.
I picture him strolling across a New England campus, fall leaves twirling around him and his new friends as they go to class in a gorgeous historic building. I can see him sitting in his dorm room, the glittering lights and hustle-bustle of New York City right outside his window. I can picture him sitting in the quad, deep in a discussion with classmates at a small Southern liberal arts college. With so many varied and delightful options available to him, why would I stand in his way and try to keep him close to me just to ease my sense of loss? I can’t wait to see him take flight, even though I know there will be moments when, at first, he falters. My job as a mama has been to prepare him for this time in his life, so that he can step out into the unknown and find what makes him happy. And no matter how far away I am from him, I will always be a soft place to land, and there to cheer him on.
And while there’s the joy of anticipation and the excitement of seeing him make his decision when the moment comes, it is all bittersweet, tinged with the sense that my days of laughing at his jokes over dinner, hearing his guitar ring out through the house, or seeing his face light up as he tells me about something he read are limited. Of course, they always were, but now I see the pages of the calendar falling rapidly to the floor and it is all so real.
I remind myself often that this is what we’ve been preparing for since the day he was born.
It feels like yesterday that I was writing in his baby book imagining what he’d be like at 18…and here we are. In less than a month, he’ll turn 18. And he’s so much more than I ever dreamed: a little me, a lot of his dad, and entirely, one hundred percent himself. He’s a bright, beautiful soul who is intellectually curious, funny, joyful, kind, and a blossoming musical talent. Within the next three months, as we hear from the few schools who don’t make their decisions until the spring, and he makes his decision, we’ll know where he’s going to land and then it really gets real. He gets to build on the amazing young man he already is and recreate himself anew. And the college he chooses will play such an important role in who he becomes. And that’s one reason I’m happy for him to go as far away as he wants so he can experience new people and new ideas from all over the country and world in ways he might not if he stays with the safe and familiar surroundings of home.
I know how much going to college far from home, away from friends and family, changed me. I went from being the shy kid who had never made a single decision on her own and who had no idea what she was capable of, to learning how to stand on my own and make my own decisions based on available information. I made friends from all over the country and world, learned how to navigate a big city, and created a life that I don’t think I could have dreamed of if I had stayed closer to home. How could I possibly not give those same opportunities to grow and evolve to my son?
When I feel my heart about to burst and the hot sting of tears in my eyes as I contemplate his leaving, I think of the mama and papa bluebirds who, for the past two summers, brought their brood of little bluebird fledglings to the feeders on my porch. I have cried watching Mama Bluebird as she taught them how to get food from the feeders. The first few days, they would stand on the ledge, their tiny mouths open and squawking as they begged their parents for food. Then, over the course of a few weeks, as their feathers filled in and I could tell the boys from the girls, Mama Bird fed them less and less as they learned how to land on the suet feeder and pluck their own meal out. Soon, they would come to the feeder without their parents and by the end of summer, Mama and Papa Bluebird were coming on their own, their baby birds grown(ish) and on their own. It was sad and beautiful and oh so perfect. And such a great reminder that everything I’m experiencing with my kiddo is exactly what we’re supposed to be experiencing.