Leaving home to go to college can be pretty traumatic, but if you're on a traditional path and move right into a dormitory, that trauma can be mellowed a lot. You don't necessarily have to cook every meal for yourself, and you're unlikely to have to start buying your own toilet paper. There are still rules in a dormitory, so you're still expected to behave as if others are watching you.
But leaving college, moving away from friends and family, and starting something completely out of your comfort zone can be a much bigger adjustment.
When I graduated and planned to move from Fort Collins, Colorado, to Washington D.C. for a paid internship, I couldn't have been more confident and excited for my next adventure. But subconsciously, I must have had my doubts. When I drove my mother to the airport after spending graduation weekend together, I melted down. The reality that my childhood was coming to an end, and that I didn't have a plan for the next time I would see anyone in my family hit me like a ton of bricks.
It wasn't until years later that I realized the value of this story in my past, the lessons I learned, and the opportunity I had to share my vulnerability with someone who could not only handle it, but who would also learn from the experience.
I weighed under 100 pounds when I graduated from college. My mother came for graduation and stared at me. "Are you anorexic?!"
Nope. I'm just broke.
She was heartbroken that I hadn't told her I was struggling. She couldn't believe I would rather go without food than ask her for help. Really, though, that wasn't it at all.
I simply didn't consider asking for help. As I've written before, I've always been independent. And after traveling through Australia and New Zealand, I was fiercely independent. It just never occurred to me to ask for help.
My mother and I have always been close; we've also always been like oil & water. I've never doubted her love for me. There has never been a doubt that she would be there for me no matter what, and that she would always have my back. That's why, when I graduated from college, I had such a hard time saying goodbye to her. We didn't have a plan for the next time we'd see each other.
She flew in from Sacramento to Fort Collins for graduation, had a great weekend full of fun celebrations, and then the weekend was over and I was driving her to the airport. We were chatting away on the ride to the tiny airport. I was about to head off to my next adventure; a coveted position as a paid intern in Washington DC at the US International Trade Commission. As I drove her in my little blue Chevette, I wasn't thinking at all about her leaving. I was yammering about packing up my apartment, working my shift at a restaurant on New Year's Eve, and then packing up my little car to head to Colorado Springs to see my dad and sister before moving across the country. It was a full plate and my mind was spinning.
I pulled up at the entrance to the airport and helped my mom get her luggage out of the car. We hugged, her eyes teared up and I gave her the warning expression "don't start, mom." I walked her just inside the automatic doors and we hugged again. Then I walked away, got into my car, and started to drive down the bumpy road back toward I25.
It was December and the road was a little slippery, which is why, when I had a moment of sheer panic and slammed on my brakes to make a u-turn, my 180 became a 360. Somehow I managed to turn the car back toward the airport without seeing clearly through my streaming tears.
I parked right in front, in the no parking zone, and ran inside the airport. My mother had gone through what was, back then, the metal detector and security, and was sitting in the tiny waiting area at the gate. I ran right through that metal detector, right past the security guard. My mother saw me coming, tears streaming down my face, and stood up to grab me.
We hugged fiercely, both of us crying in relief, love, and grief. Yes, grief. It was the end of an era for our relationship. Even though we had been living over 1,000 miles apart for 5 years, we always knew when we'd see each other again; we always had a plan. But now, I was on my way to "adulting", moving to the big city and a big job (that's how I saw it, anyway).
Looking back, I can see that we were grieving that loss, though we were both excited for the future. At the time, all I knew was that I was leaving the comfort of young adulthood and taking on a mighty adventure... alone.
I cry every time I think about that goodbye, partly because that memory remains so strong, that feeling of loss and fear. The other reason my eyes fill when I think of that event is because I can now imagine my mother's conflicting feelings of sadness and joy at that moment. Joy for my achievement of graduation and upcoming adventure, joy at the feeling that I still needed her and loved her, and sadness at the end of this era in our relationship. This was the goodbye for her that signaled real time between visits and hugs.
Thankfully, these days we make plans to see each other regularly, and our relationship has only grown and improved over the years. When I need her, she's there. She arrived on my due date with our first son, and stayed until a couple of days after he was born. She gave him his first bath and took his tiny footprints. Six months later, she came back to DC to help me pack for our move across the country to Montana. Her dedication to writing on each box every. single. thing. she packed in it made it possible for us to settle into our rented house fairly quickly. And when we bought our first house a year later, she sent us a gift certificate for the light fixture we desperately wanted to replace a really ugly one in our living room. (We were going to have to wait, being house-poor was a reality for a few years.)
I still have trouble asking for help, but I've definitely improved over the years.
Every time I'm about to jump into a new adventure, that memory pops into my head. Sometimes I call her to share what I'm excited and nervous about, so I can feel that same relief I felt when we hugged inside the airport. I'm grateful for that memory for a couple of reasons:
Even though my heart was broken and I was really scared, I continued down that path for my adventure and it all turned out just fine, and that gives me the courage to continue on whatever path is currently opening up before me.
When I look at my own children and their independence and adventures, I remember my mother's words that day: "You'll be fine. You are smart and resourceful. You have all the tools to succeed in whatever you choose. And I'm here, no matter what, when you need me."
I'm about to step into another adventure this week. I'm excited. I'm nervous. My P/E ratio is through the roof. And I have my mother's words in my head.
What do you need to hear, what do you need to think and to know, before you step off into your next adventure? That voice can be your own. You don't need someone else to tell you what you need to hear. Just do it. Take the step. Don't regret.