I’m a firm believer in the value of spreading your wings and crossing some state lines when it’s time for college — I myself went to a school hundreds of miles from home. My daughter followed my lead and decided to leave home in Oregon for college in Arizona. The only question I had was: Would she want to make the trip solo, with me, or with my ex, or with, gulp, both of us.
To my great surprise, she chose the latter.
My ex and I broke up when this child was 3, so she’s always known life in between. He and I have had good years and bad years, but finally settled into an amicable relationship, much to the relief of our two kids. But we hadn’t attempted this kind of togetherness in close quarters in decades. Now we’d be in a car, then in a plane, then in a car again, then doing the fraught and frazzling work of moving an 18 year old into a dorm, and then back again. But anything for the children, right?
What was it like to go on this emotional adventure with a man I hadn’t spent more than an hour alone with in at least 15 years? Turns out, really weird, and also totally normal.
I kind of like spending time with my ex, because I remember why I liked him in the first place. But when it comes to parenting, I’m used to doing it alone and doing it my way. Of course I’ve had to compromise over the years, but I forgot what it was like to compromise in the moment.
Letting him make decisions and put his own spin on the experience reminded me that this kid is growing up. I’ll have less and less influence over her as she gets older. It was a good lesson in stepping back and listening to other opinions, both hers and his. I’d never describe myself as a control freak, but I do have strong opinions. It’s time to button those up and let the people around me (i.e., my kids) make their own decisions.
The trip went pretty well, all things considered. The three of us got along well and had a good time. It’s interesting to see my kids interacting with their dad. I forget that their relationship with him is different than the one they have with me. It was really sweet to see them joking and having a good time together.
The long trip back was less stressful and more pleasant than I’d imagined. We had a two-hour car trip back to the airport, then a couple of hours wait and a two and a half hour flight back home. We had no trouble making conversation, and while he might not be at the very top of my list of travel companions, he’s far from the bottom.
And honestly, who better to understand exactly what I was going through? Facing an empty nest is a rite of passage for parents, and comes with a lot of conflicting emotions. My ex and I are both single, so this transition was similar for each of us. If you can get past the disappointment and stress of divorce, you remember that no one loves and appreciates your kids the way the two of you do. It’s a bond that’s often stressed but which we, at least, managed to cling to when things were difficult. And that trip was no different.
I have two incredible children. They’re smart and talented and fun to be with. I’ve been single parenting them for decades now, and so has their father. I don’t always agree with his parenting tactics, and I’m sure he feels the same about me. But I recognize that they wouldn’t be the people they are without having been raised by both of us.
Dropping your kid off at college doesn’t mark the end of parenting, but it does indicate the end of an era. I’m glad I got to share it with the only other person who really gets it.
Julia Williamson is mother to two very nearly adult daughters. She’s a freelance writer, a decluttering wizard, and an inveterate optimist, regardless of reality. Visit her at thesunnysideofthestreet.substack.com.