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Family Life

I'm Sending My Last Baby to College, and Everything Feels Like the First Time

Elizabeth Spencer

My husband and I refer to our firstborn as our learner child: we figured some things out on her and (presumably) made fewer mistakes on her younger sister, our second and last baby.

Potty training with our learner child? Lots of pleading, prompting, bribing, yelling and crying (hers, mine and ours). Potty training with our second-born? “Here’s the bathroom, here’s a little potty, have at it.”

Writing her name with our learner child? Endless pages of connect-the dots letters and daily practice and, again, crying. Writing her name with our second-born? Give her some paper and a washable marker. She’ll figure it out eventually.

On it goes, our list of things that, having done them once with our first child, were easier with our second. What to do about preschool and when to start dance and how the whole school band thing works and navigating middle school friendships and driver’s training and first dates and AP classes — these were not our first rodeos. We didn’t get thrown off quite so many horses.

And theoretically, this pattern should continue now that we’re in the thick of the off-to-college process with the younger of our children.

But no.

In almost every way, it feels as if I have never done this before.

Of course, very few of us have actually sent a child off to college during the age of coronavirus. When I first toured my older daughter’s eventual school of choice, students weren’t moving off campus in a pandemic frenzy while we listened to our tour guide try to sell us on the place. My firstborn’s junior-year SAT score wasn’t preempted by quarantine. We didn’t wear masks to our college-parent orientation session.

But this first-time feeling I’m experiencing the second time around isn’t just because of Covid-19.

It’s also because, while I’ve been a college mom before, I’ve never been the mom of a college student going to school three states and 10 hours away before. I’ve never hugged my student goodbye knowing I wouldn’t hug her hello again for months. I’ve never kept track of the weather in a college town 500 miles away.

But this sense of being back in College Parenting 101 is also not just because my rising undergrad is going so much farther away than my almost-college grad did. The reason is deeper than distance or a disease.

For everything that’s been easier on me as a mom because this baby isn’t my first, sending her to college is harder because she’s my last.

At all the big endings and ceremonial moments with the child who made me a mom in the first place, I always had the comforting thought I might have another shot. Another opportunity to get the perfect picture. Another chance to be moved by “Pomp and Circumstance.” Another moment of parental pride and celebration.

Of course, I know the future is promised to no one. Of course I never wanted to waste the gift of any of these moments with the child who so patiently waited for me while I figured out how to be a mom. But in the back of my mind and heart, I always thought, “I’ll probably get to do this again.”

Now, with my youngest, I’m feeling the unsteadiness of so many last lasts, piled on top of first firsts. No wonder I feel like I’m living that dream where I show up for a college final exam and realize I never took the class.

And yet, this second and last baby of mine is always taking me someplace new.

Someplace unfamiliar. Someplace I don’t have a roadmap for. She always has. She’s taken me to parenting a strong-spirited child. To mothering a self-described feminist. To being on the front lines with someone battling anxiety. To learning new ways to practice love.

These are places I wouldn’t have gone on my own. They are places off the grid of my comfort zone. They are places I didn’t know I needed to go.

But having been led there by my last baby, I’m so glad I made the trip. First and foremost, she is a leader. I don’t really need to know the way now. I’ll just keep following her.

Elizabeth Spencer is mom to two daughters (one teen and one young adult) who regularly dispense love, affection and brutally honest fashion advice. She’s been married for 26 years to an exceedingly patient guy she picked up in church. Elizabeth writes about faith, food and family (with some occasional funny thrown in) at Guilty Chocoholic Mama and on Facebook and Twitter, and is the author of Known By His Names: A 365-Day Journey From The Beginning to The Amen.

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