By KATE STONE LOMBARDI
Published: September 23, 2007
THE night before we dropped our son off at college for his freshman year, I dreamed about my obstetrician. Dr. George Feldman retired more than a decade ago, and I hadn’t needed his obstetric services since long before that. But there he was, stethoscope draped jauntily around his shoulders, smiling into my face.
I’m not surprised he showed up in my subconscious that night. After all, he delivered the boy whom we, in turn, were delivering to his dorm room the next morning. Everything has been feeling circular these days. Time, instead of progressing in a straight march, instead seems to be taking all sorts of crazy loops backward before suddenly leaping forward again.
Last summer, when I was starting to get all misty-eyed about the departure of Paul, my younger child, I told him I wasn’t sure if his leaving home signified that, after more than 22 years on the job, I had been promoted or fired as a mom.
My son, who has a sense of humor, responded: “Mom, I’m afraid we’re going to have to let you go. You’ve made some valuable contributions to this organization, and this decision is no reflection on your performance. It’s just that we are restructuring, and your job is being eliminated.” As an added thought, he noted that I might still be called in for consulting work.
I had to laugh at the concept of being downsized as a mom, not to mention his eerie familiarity with corporate speak for layoffs. The downsized mom is kind of an updated description of an aging cliché — the empty nest.
Until now, I also thought that the empty nest itself was a dated concept. I used to read about women who stood in their children’s deserted bedrooms, mooning about and smelling their sheets. I would roll my eyes over stories about mothers who couldn’t wait to clean out their kids’ rooms, and no sooner were they done than they would sit in the newly pristine space, mourning the very mess and disorder they had just cleared out.
It all seemed very 1950s, these stereotyped mothers who lived for their children and could find no direction or meaning once their last offspring had departed. Arrogantly, I assumed that I would be immune from all this. After all, I had a career that was fulfilling, and was especially looking forward to being able to work guilt-free. For more than two decades I have been torn between children and deadlines, and like most working moms, felt that I was always shortchanging one thing or another along the way.
Sometimes, I’d be half-focused while interviewing someone, wondering if at that very moment, my son was making a great play on the soccer field. Other times, I’d be on the sidelines, worrying that the return call I’d been waiting for from that difficult-to-reach politician was just now landing on my answering machine. (I’ve seen plenty of parents, including doctors and lawyers, diagnose, consult and participate in conference calls, and otherwise conduct business on their cellphones from the bleachers, but this was far beyond the capabilities of my attention span.)
Anyway, the point is that I missed the point, which is about missing the child. I don’t miss the idea of my son, Paul; I miss the specific, tall, funny teenager who was thoughtful enough to call from his cellphone when he was going by the grocery store to ask if I needed anything. My days are full, but I miss taking a break at the end of the afternoon to hear about what happened in American history class.
At Paul’s college, they offered a one-day parent orientation, which was a first for me. In a series of programs, we were gently warned to let our children work out their own problems on campus. Everyone from the college chaplain to the dean of multicultural affairs assured us that our freshman would be well taken care of. We heard about campus security, health services, academic resources and more. It was all very nice, though in my mind, not particularly necessary.
The final event for parents was a talk from the president of the college. She talked about sending her own two daughters to college and how different it had been with each. With the first, the president said, she was very anxious about how her daughter would fare at school, balancing academics, college life and being so far from home. But when her younger child left home, this successful college president was far more anxious about how she herself would cope.
Bingo. When my daughter left I spent a lot of time hand-wringing about potential roommate issues, the leap from high school to college and the like. Yet I rarely worried about Paul’s adjustment to college. He has always been independent and competent, but then again, so was his sister. This time, I was my chief concern.
Bold letters on the parent orientation schedule read, “5:30: Family Goodbyes. All following activities are for students only.” It was a stunningly clear afternoon and the sun was glaring into my already wet eyes as I looked up at my son.
“Mom, no scenes please,” he said in his low voice.
Suddenly, time looped again and I remembered something from my days with Dr. Feldman — the transitional breathing technique. Back in Lamaze class, they taught different ways of breathing for each stage of labor. Transition was the very last piece, the most painful, and it occurred just before the baby was born. You panted very rapidly, almost like blowing out a succession of candles.
When my son turned after saying goodbye, I resurrected the technique. Sharp, repeated breaths — whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. It worked better than it did 18 years ago. I was distracted from the ache in my chest and held the tears back, even as Paul walked away quickly, to catch up with a new friend.
Congratulations! You have a young man.