I’ve never watched the video of Lyra’s going-away party at her preschool in the Bronx, and I never will. My daughter was adorable, wearing a crown her teacher made for her and sharing cupcakes with her classmates. But I was holding the camcorder that morning in 2009, our last day in New York City, and somehow her cheerful chatter with all her friends sent me over the edge. I simply could not stop crying. Luckily, Lyra didn’t really notice, but every adult in the room, including my in-laws, looked pretty worried about me throughout my 15 minutes of full-body, ugly sobbing. I tried to control the shaking camera, but I am certain the only audible sound on that video is my nonstop weeping.
I did not handle that transition well, is what I’m saying. I was crying for my daughter’s changing circumstances, but really I was crying for myself: for the loss of her toddlerhood, the New York life we were giving up. Something about this transformation in our lives, and my daughter’s position at its center, made me lose it.
So I spent the summer of 2023 viewing Lyra’s upcoming college drop-off with some apprehension. Would I, once again, lose it, only this time in front of a mortified, grown-up Lyra? Would I sob in front of Lyra’s roommate’s parents? In the era of TikTok, would I become a meme?
My fears were not at all assuaged by my conversations with fellow parents. After all, if you know anything about my generation of parents, it’s that we’re very, very involved in our children’s lives. And even the most levelheaded moms and dads I know have spoken about the college drop-off in terms of it feeling like a kind of minor soul death. How does time move so fast? they ask. How did my child get so old? And what does this next part of my life look like? One dad I know has been making a concerted effort to rebrand himself: not an “empty nester,” a “free bird.” But even this upbeat reframing acknowledges the sadness at the heart of the transition, as we parents are left to putter around our suddenly too-large homes, staring mournfully at our children’s empty bedrooms. (“My best advice?” one mom of a rising sophomore told me. “Close her bedroom door.”)
As August began, we started texting one another: Thinking of you guys this week! As if we were all headed to funerals, memorials for our lives as parents. One by one our friends took their children to school, then posted Facebook messages that expressed their pride in their offspring while hinting, only hinting, at the turmoil raging within. And then came our departure.
We drove six hours Saturday and checked in to our Days Inn that night. We ate dinner at a nearby Olive Garden, then returned to the hotel, overfull with breadsticks and melted cheese. After a spirited euchre match on the second bed in the parents’ room, we let Lyra pick the next game. She chose Go Fish specifically to annoy us.
“This is the last time we’ll ever play cards together,” she said, mock-solemnly. She’d been saying stuff like this all day. (“Goodbye forever, house!”) She was nervously interested in college, intrigued by the academic challenge but uncertain about making friends, and now was draping her anxiety in irony. Go Fish, as always, was terrible, and the game ended with Lyra and her sister, Harper, wrestling on the bed, accusing each other of cheating, laughing hysterically. Eventually we told them that they needed to quiet down or someone was going to call the cops. “You can’t shriek like that,” I said. “Not in a Days Inn.”
Sunday morning was sunny and perfect, though as I wrestled the dorm bed into lofted position, Lyra’s room was nonetheless stifling. While my wife tried to get Lyra, who was happily arranging all her anime figurines, to answer her questions about where she wanted her clothes, coat, mirror, etc., to go, I went off in search of a fan. It was a glorious day on the quad. I walked past a dad in a Grateful Dead T-shirt lying in the shade. “Dad down!” I said.
“Tell me about it,” he said.
When I returned, Lyra was looking at her perfectly arranged figurines with satisfaction. Her roommate had arrived and was taping up posters of PJ Harvey, Tori Amos, and Kim Gordon. They even had a wallet of CDs, if you can imagine. “You have such great stuff,” I said, flipping through it.
“Oh, yeah, I’ve got real mom taste in music,” the roommate said.
At lunch in the dining hall, Lyra and her roommate excitedly discussed their favorite books, TV shows, memes, and animes. (So aligned are their pop-culture interests that each brought an equally dog-eared copy of House of Leaves to college.) They paid zero attention whatsoever to us, except that at one point Lyra said, “Oh, yeah, my parents love Lord of the Rings,” and the roommate asked about the Silmarillion and I had to admit I was more of a movie fan.
But picking at my bad cafeteria salad, making pleasant small talk with the roommate’s father, I found myself feeling … happy. Maybe joyful? Certainly hardly sad at all. Lyra’s face was bright with enthusiasm as she and her roommate compared their first-year seminar classes. It struck me, very belatedly it could be argued, that the reason I was handling this milestone way better than I expected was that I was treating it not as a tragedy that was happening to me, but as an adventure that was happening to her. I was not thinking about how this was the end of my journey. I was watching her discover that this was the beginning of a new one for her.
I know that “Don’t make your child’s college drop-off all about you” might not qualify as an earth-shaking revelation to anyone not sunk deep in the derangement of 21st-century parenting. But awash in a sea of Be brave! text messages and stiff-upper-lip Facebook updates, buried in 18 years of identifying myself as a parent above all, it was heartening to remind myself that, in fact, she is so ready for this moment. Yes, she’s nervous. Yes, she will be homesick at some point. But I think that afternoon—as she arranged this new home to perfection, used her new ID app to unlock the doors to her dorm, found a $20 clearance-sale chair at Target—she might have had her first real inkling of how good it will feel to stretch her life further than our town, our house, our sheltering arms.
I had to leave before dinner with Harper, whose high school started classes Monday morning. (My wife would drive home the next day, once parent orientation ended.) In Lyra’s dorm room, her new outpost in a new place, I hugged her and told her how proud I was. She hugged me back, hugged me hard. “Goodbye forever,” she said into my shoulder.
I laughed. I felt the sting of tears, but mostly I felt so happy for her. “Goodbye forever,” I said.
As I closed the door, she waved. Behind her the fan I’d bought moved back and forth, blowing her hair around her smiling face.