We raised our daughter for her to leave, and now she’s gone

Does my experience as an emigrant help me put her departure for college in perspective?

When my first-born, Ciara, was four I enrolled her in a half-day programme at a local Montessori school here in Orlando. I was a Montessori teacher so it made sense that I would want her to reap the benefits.

I prepped Ciara for that first day; we toured the school, bought the snacks, I talked it up, but on the day she was due to start, about ten minutes into the new morning routine, she asked me to sit on the couch with her. “I’m not ready,” she said. “Me neither,” I replied, and that was that. Ciara never made it to preschool.

She was reading, and social, and doing just fine without preschool, I told myself, but there was no reasonable way to avoid kindergarten. We toured the school, we bought the backpack, we met the teacher, and on one warm August morning, with her three-year old-sister on one hand, and her soon-to-be baby brother kicking around my innards, my husband, Tom, and I walked our little Ciara into Blankner K-8 to begin her educational journey.

She was ready then. I still wasn’t. I held it together in the school, encouraged by her excitement and confidence. I held it together in the car, not wanting to upset little Aoife. But, when I got to the bathroom at home, I took a look at my sorry self in the mirror and started to bawl.


I wept for Ireland. I wept for the "loss" of my child. I wept for the "loss" of Aoife and (unborn baby) Tomas's time with their big sister. I wept for the books we wouldn't read together, the Dragon Tales episodes that would go unwatched, the playground trips we'd miss. I wept for the loss of control. I wept the ugly weep, with snot and slime and deep, vibrating sobs. After 30 minutes, with my husband knocking on the door to check if I might ever come out, I looked at my red, swollen face, hair "glued" haphazardly across it, and knew I had to get myself together. Life would go on. We would adjust. She'd be back at 2.45pm, after all.

Jump forward 13 years. Ciara, now 18, had finished elementary and secondary education. She had played a blinder. She was class president all four years of high school. Impressive enough in and of itself, but her Irish mammy and daddy were very boastful on account of the fact that her class had over 700 people in it (more than we had ever had in our entire schools). She joined soccer and swim teams, she soared academically, but more than all that, she was a very decent and kind human being. Tom and I had one agenda when we had children; to raise people whose company we would enjoy as adults, and we knocked it out of the park with Ciara (being immodest, all three really). But now, having raised a person we really liked, came the cruel irony of college.

In America, college-age kids have a tendency to move far away for college. Back in my day you took the bus to UCC (University College Cork) or the Tech, and were back home in time for dinner. Parents generally had to beg their children to move out at some point in their 20s. Despite a concerted effort on my part to extol the merits of online college (which could be comfortably attended from the kitchen counter), our American girl had set her sights very far away. Indulgently we drove her to visit universities ten hours away, but heaved deep sighs of relief when she accepted an offer for a place on the public health programme at the University of Florida, a mere 112 miles (180km) from home.

Once the decision was made I entered denial. I was finishing up my Master’s degree, starting a new job, and we were planning a big celebratory European trip to mark multiple family milestones; it was easy to put the college thing on the long finger. A few weeks out from move day and Ciara told me about moms of her friends who were already weeping at any mention of the upcoming nest departures. I was cool as a breeze (though I did find myself humming the Beatles, She’s Leaving Home, at odd times).

The weekend before she left, I went dorm room shopping with her and, though I acknowledged on some strange level that something was about to change, I still managed to remain aloof. I was proud of myself for being able to put her excitement above my potential grief, but it was strange that I was feeling so detached. I speculated that maybe my experience as an emigrant helped me put it all in perspective: she wasn’t leaving us to cross an ocean, after all. That was probably it.

I got through packing and the pile of boxes by the front door feeling calm. My sister came by on the morning of moving day to say her goodbyes. She had confessed to being weepy for days at the prospect of Ciara’s departure, and I had her well warned to “behave”. No sooner had she sat with her cup of tea, across the kitchen island from me, than she sighed deeply, “I remember when she was just born”. Tears stung my eyes. “Oh, no. We are not doing that, Audrey. Oh no, no, no!”

But, by the time the “last” hug was given in the driveway, my sister’s sorrows had me beginning to feel my own. I pulled it together enough to bring Ciara to cast her first ever vote before leaving town, and I kept it together on the drive up there, thankful that Aoife had come with us in place of Tom, who had to work. I did glance sideways in the car a few times to see the face in the passenger seat, beginning to realise I wouldn’t be seeing it so much anymore.

Arriving at UF we got elbows-deep in the move in process; lugging and hefting in the 98 degrees heat. One elevator trip per family was the rule and with an entire van load of boxes and bags, that meant quite a few lumbering, sweaty stair climbs. Once everything was in the dorm room we set about the fun decorating stuff; hanging pictures and mirrors and setting up the extra long twin bed to make it feel like home.

Finally came unpacking the clothes. This is when I really began to feel it; we would soon be at the part where we left her. As each bag got unpacked my dread grew. I slowed my unpacking pace, tried to remain upbeat, but my voice was cracking, there were deep sighs, and I know she caught my watery eyes a few times.

She started to get a little less excited too, realising soon she’d be on her own. Thankfully, she had a Rush Week orientation to attend at 7pm, which meant we ran out of time to linger at an emotional goodbye. I drove her to Whatever Hall, hugged her hard and said goodbye. Yes, crying a bit at this point. As we drove away, I watched her in the rear view mirror walking off into her future without me (it was time for the melodrama).

The two-hour drive home was not as awful as it might have been. Aoife slept and I listened to News Radio to stop my thoughts from wandering. I was good, I told myself. She’d be good. It would all be fine. Exhausted I turned onto our street, feeling pretty darn proud of my levels of stoicism throughout the day, but then I saw it - her car. Her car parked outside our house. Our house that no longer had her in it. That was it; the floodgates opened and I was transported back to that first day of kindergarten - a big snotty, sobby mess, and this time she was not going to be home at 2.45pm.

The sobbing lasted for about two hours on and off that night, and there has been intermittent sobbing since. Don’t tell me how great it’s going to be - I know. No need to remind me that she has entered the best days of her life - I get it. No one is more delighted for her or proud of her than me. And her leaving - we did that - we explicitly raised her to leave; it was all part of the plan. But just for now I’m indulging my sadness about losing the company of one of the people I love the very most from my daily life. It’s tough, I’m not going to lie. Life will go on. We will adjust. Just not anytime soon.

Cathy Tobin lives in Orlando Florida. She blogs at corkwoman.com.