When our daughter, Darrah, left for college three years ago, I knew only that I would miss her. I imagined a certain hollowness and stillness coming over our house, a low-grade pall that I would fight with more activity—writing more articles, seeing more friends, enlarging our perennial garden. I've done those things and a few others, but I've come to understand that they are only the cover story for a much stranger, and totally unanticipated, change. After Darrah left, a particular engine of self began to rumble and move—the one that travels through time. I find that I feel both much younger and distinctly older than I did before, and in ways I never could have predicted.
At first, not much seemed to happen at all. Our only child was gone and my husband, Dan, and I found ourselves alone together in our comfy old house and overgrown yard. I missed my daughter keenly, but other than that, I went about business as usual.
Looking back, I think that this abrupt entry into a new life stage was like a cage door swinging open for a zoo animal: I didn't immediately realize that I was free. Lest that seem too strong a statement, let me explain. I love being Darrah's mother. She is an exuberant presence, full of warmth and goofy humor and sudden, stunning insights about people and life. Nonetheless, a few weeks after Darrah left, I began to experience an odd sense of lightness. It was as though springtime had entered my brain and body. I felt myself taking bigger, looser strides and standing a little taller, like a plant reaching up toward the sun. This sense of sprouting felt familiar, but it took me a little while to place it. It was the bodily experience of youth.
When I say "youth," I'm not talking about the hormone-buzzed, bouncing-off-walls state of adolescence. I'm referring to feeling young in the specific way I did an adult in my 20s and early 30s, before becoming a mother. Back then, I was far from blissful, but I had the relative luxury of obsessing about just one person—me. By the time I'd hugged Darrah goodbye in the parking lot of her freshman dorm, my brain had spent some 18.5 years reeling with worries, plans, second guesses and unanswerable questions about the growth and development of another human being. I loved my daughter desperately, yet I did not have the power to guarantee her happiness or well being.
During those childraising years, my running internal monologue had ranged from health concerns (how upset should I be about the headaches she's been complaining about, even though her pediatrician said they were "probably nothing;" should I take her to a neurologist anyway just to be sure, or am I being totally neurotic?) to matters of character (what does it mean that she refuses to clean her room, and should I make her so she'll grow up responsible or should I let it go because it's really all about me, a certifiable neat freak?) Then there were the run-of-the-mill terrors about life and death: How will she learn to drive without smashing herself to bits and how much booze might she drink at that party tonight and should I talk to her about it (again) or shut up and trust her good judgment and by the way, where is Darrah right now?
Within weeks of her departure, all of this internal hand-wringing simply fell away. I was perfectly willing to continue worrying about my daughter, but since I no longer knew what she was doing at any given moment, I had no focus for my fretting. So I gave it up. I think that's what the lightness was about: I'd begun to recover a space in my being that was essentially empty. Not empty as in lacking, but as in free.
With this new sense of buoyancy came another, even more delicious experience—I began to feel sexy again. It had been a long time. In the months following Darrah's birth, I'd begun to wear a bleak assortment of baggy T-shirts and sweatpants, somehow convinced that my life as an attractive, sensual woman had ended. I was Mother, and a squishy-bodied, exhausted one at that. Desperate to reclaim some shred of allure, I got my hair permed. The results were scary: I looked as though I'd been electrocuted.
As Darrah grew into toddlerhood and I lost weight and discovered an activity I loved—jazz dancing—this sense of matronliness began recede. Then, when she hit high school, it returned in force. In the presence of my daughter and her girlfriends, dressed in their navel-baring micro-tees and lit up with the incandescent energy of early adolescence, I felt older and more faded than ever. The sense of "goodbye to all that" was attended by a kind of muted, shrouded grief. I talked to no one about these feelings because, against all common sense, I couldn't imagine that any other 40-something mother felt as I did. Instead, I tried to beat back my shame with tough love. You're middle aged! I'd rail inwardly. Get over it!
Then, in the midst of Darrah's freshman year of college, something started to shift. I began to look in the mirror and see the woman who was actually reflected there. She was middle aged, for sure. But still quite slim—maybe even shapely. One evening, at a friend's urging, I borrowed her slinky black skirt, topped it with a new, form-fitting tank, and walked into a dinner party. Heads turned; I heard a couple of whistles and "whoas!" I was honestly shocked. Then delighted. I hadn't realized how much I'd been hiding.
I began to buy clothes in brighter colors, corals and plums and aquas instead of the basic black that I'd convinced myself was sophisticated but was actually another way to make myself invisible. I weeded out my flowing shirts and pleated slacks and replaced them with more youthful styles—no tiny tees or low-rider jeans, but clothing that at least suggested that I had a body underneath. I reclaimed sexy underwear. I began to flirt with my husband, Dan, again. Let's just say he liked it.
Dan is a major player in this tale of recovered youthfulness. He and I have been together practically forever—35-plus years—which meant we had a lot of time together before Darrah entered the picture. We started out in a tiny third-floor studio apartment in West Philadelphia, close enough to the University of Pennsylvania campus to sample its endless roster of delights--foreign films, folk music concerts and fringy art shows, along with the neighborhood's all-night diners and vast array of ethnic restaurants. We took the train to New York on weekends ($5 round trip); we traveled to Europe on the cheap in the summer. The nature of the careers we ultimately chose—freelance writing and college teaching—allowed us to continue this semi-spontaneous lifestyle for an absurdly long period of time, so long that it began to seem normal.
Once Darrah was born, of course, everything changed. But then she grew up, started leafing through college catalogs, and one day was gone. After a brief period of stasis during which Dan and I acted out our familiar routines like a couple of slightly battered wind-up toys, a day came when we more or less stared at each other and said: Damn, we can do whatever we want! It was a kind of rubber-band moment, where we simply let go and snapped back to our former shape.
Okay, so maybe it wasn't quite that easy. There was the matter of making regular tuition payments, keeping up a century-old house and other distinctly un-youthful tasks. But there has been a palpable loosening up of unspoken rules. When Darrah lived at home, for example, we regularly ate dinner by 6 p.m. so she'd have sufficient time afterward to do her homework and get ready for bed. Now we eat dinner whenever we feel like it or not at all, and we're less conscientious about making meals that represent all the major food groups. We've been known to have milkshakes for dinner, or Doritos topped with melted cheese and jalapeno peppers. Period. No side salad, no redemptive plate of carrot sticks. We don't usually eat so foolishly, but I find it wonderful to know that we can.
We were somewhat slower to realize that while Darrah was safely tucked away at college, we could travel again. Not just a cautious overnight to Washington D.C. or New York, which we'd done several times during her high school years, but big-time, faraway travel. Last spring, toward the end of Darrah's sophomore year, we took off for Amsterdam. There was a point in our planning process when I almost backed out—it was the moment I realized that the travel week that worked best for us collided with the date of Darrah's return home for the summer. "How can we let her return to an empty house?" I fumed. Patiently, Dan reminded me that Darrah was now 20 years old, a highly responsible sort, and would be within shouting distance of several full-fledged adults whom she could call on for help or a hot meal. It was okay for us to go out and play.
So we did. For seven glorious days, we wandered the streets, canals, cafes, and museums of Amsterdam with absolutely nothing to do but drink in the moment—the slant of sun on a 17th-century church spire, or the sight of houseboats festooned with masses of flowers, bobbing in the canals like floating gardens. We ate Dutch potato pancakes with strong coffee for lunch and listened to gypsy music by night. We clambered up a windmill and cruised a huge, rambunctious street market, stopping at a stall to sample warm, homemade crepes drenched in stroop (Dutch caramelized sugar syrup). Each morning, we woke up with just one thing on our minds: How shall we please ourselves today?
Of course, the whole point of a vacation is to "vacate" oneself from the rigors of ordinary life. Holidays have to end, and soon enough we were back in our house that needed work and a yard that needed trimming, bills that needed paying and prescriptions that needed refilling. This might be a good moment to bring up the other side of my post-childrearing experience—the side that feels older than ever before. I suppose it's fortunate that the youthful feelings arrived first, since I don't know that I could have survived our only child's leavetaking and a slide into geezerhood at the same time. It's been harrowing enough as it is.
Take the prescriptions. We have a bunch. In fact, both Dan and I now have enough health issues that we've gone the route of weekly pill organizers. Dan's is red, mine is blue. They are positioned prominently on the kitchen counter, side by side, so we'll remember to take our meds on schedule. When Darrah comes home on breaks, we squirrel away the boxes in a corner so we can spare her what we call the "nursing home look." But when she's away at school they stand squarely, irrefutably, in the middle of the counter. I can dress up in a fabulous, shimmery outfit and go out to a dance party and come home brimming with cool. But I come home to his-and-her pill organizers.
Darrah's absence has brought something else into bold relief—our attachment to certain routines. Without her youthful energy buzzing through the house, some of our long-time habits have deepened—calcified?—into codger-like rituals. The one that most amazes and amuses Dan and I takes place after dinner, when we boil water for tea (herbal ginger for me, Earl Grey for Dan), amble into the living room with our steaming cups, put on a CD, and pick up our respective books. We then commence what we call "parallel reading."
We talk some, but mostly we just sit together and read. It turns out to be a very satisfying and comforting way to spend an evening, and unless we have other plans, we enact this domestic ritual nearly every evening of the work week. When Darrah comes home we make some effort to appear busier and more spontaneous—but, truth to tell, we don't try very hard. Her absence has outed us to ourselves: We're parallel-reading freaks. Once in awhile, one of us will notice the rut-like quality of this activity and say something to the effect of, "What have we come to?" Then we'll chuckle, sip some tea, and go back to our books.
The power of my child's absence, and presence, to shape my sense of self continues to catch me by surprise. As I write this, Darrah has just come home from college for the summer. Dan was out of town when she first arrived, so for several days she and I were a cozy twosome. One evening, she stayed out late with friends, returning home long after I'd gone to bed. The following morning, I sleepily entered the bathroom and stopped short. There, on the counter, stood an enormous bottle of hydrogen peroxide, two boxes of sterile pads, and a roll of adhesive tape.
My heart thudding, I rummaged through the wastebasket, where I found a blood-soaked bandage. "Oh my God," I whispered. I saw my daughter's face slamming against a windshield. I ran to Darrah's closed bedroom door, about to fling it open and assess the damage when some sliver of my rational brain kicked in and informed me that if my daughter had been seriously hurt, she would have awakened me.
That thought didn't stop me, however, from dashing out the front door to thoroughly inspect the car she'd driven the night before. There was no apparent damage. Coming back into the house, I heard a drowsy voice call out from the second floor: "Morning, Mom." Clumping heavily down the stairs, Darrah appeared in front of me, her right big toe swaddled in bandages and tape. She explained that she'd been walking outside in bare feet the evening before, and had tripped and scraped up her toe. There was a little swelling, and it hurt some. "But I'm totally okay," she assured me.
I nodded. But my heart kept knocking for a while. Later, I would recognize the feeling that had seized me in the moment I'd seen that impromptu first aid kit. I'd experienced versions of it several times before—a few times late at night, when Darrah didn't call in as promised, or when she was suffering some kind of medical problem that nobody could diagnose, or on the afternoon a plane had crashed right next to her elementary school and I'd heard the sound of the explosion at home, four blocks away.
There is no sense of "young" or "old" connected to those kinds of moments, no sense, even, of inhabiting a distinct personality. Boundaries collapse; the conscious mind snaps shut. There remains only love, terror and the rage to protect, a primal stew of self that, I believe, withstands all of the seismic shifts and smaller twists of life's evolving stages. We can't outgrow it, transform it, or transcend it. We're parents.