Back to School Time is Different Now That My Youngest Child is in High School

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As summer winds down and my youngest child prepares to start her second year of high school, I’ve found myself feeling melancholy, even wistful.

“It’s the beginning of the end,” my mind keeps whispering. “In three years, Emily will officially be an adult.”

When Emily graduates, she will (presumably) have hit the final milestones of her childhood. They will involve, among other things, college acceptance, going to prom, getting her driver’s license, and turning 18.

Emily will do these things without benefiting from the guidance of her older sister, Ana, who would’ve (should’ve) started college this year. Ana died two and a half years ago at the age of 15.

Had Ana lived, I might be experiencing a different type of wistful melancholy — one with a silver lining, I presume. I’d still be sad this back-to-school season, but also proud and maybe even content. I would have the satisfaction of a parent who has seen her child to adulthood and is beginning the next phase of mothering.

But Ana didn’t get that far. She died in the middle of her 10th grade year. Now there is only emptiness where these other feelings should be.

Emily, gearing up to start the grade that marked the final year of her sister’s life, has no compass to help guide her.

I can feel my own brand of ending approaching.

I’m also transitioning into a new phase of life, but it’s tangled up in grief and loss.

If Ana was starting college like all of her friends, I would have some of the same emotions that I’m seeing my peers post to social media daily. They are parents transitioning, just as I’m transitioning, from being a daily part of their child’s life, to parenting from the margins.

I find this surprisingly comforting. Many of these parents knew my daughter. Their children were Ana’s friends and classmates. They went to school with her, had sleepovers, performed in shows, and reached all the expected milestones together (more or less).

Then, just like that, Ana died and I was cut off, suddenly and completely, from the day-to-day nuance of my oldest child’s life.

There was no slow transition into an anticipated separation, no buffer from childhood into adulthood, no helping her move through the grey area between college life and adult independence.

Ana’s loss isolated me from her friend’s parents and their experience with the gradual separating of their selves from their children’s selves. My separation was too abrupt, too horrifying.

But as Emily moves through these last few years of high school, it’s a little like people are catching up with me. My own sense of endings, of being acutely aware that the daily act of parenting is coming to an end, is being echoed by so many of the parents I knew when Ana was little.

Losing a child is not the same as seeing a healthy child grow up and move away, but there is real grief involved in this specific type of ending — the winding down of the nuclear family, the shift away from being the center of your children’s lives, to existing at the margins. There is real grief connected to this shift accompanied by the awareness that life is shifting into a new phase, whether you want it to or not.

I attempted to explain my tumultuous feelings to friends whose children are couple of years older than Emily. Their girls will graduate from high school this year.

“I’m not sure I’m ready for it to end,” I told them. “The idea of not seeing my daughter every day is kind of scary.”

They’d glanced at each other — a knowing, familiar look — and nodded.

“You can’t wait for this change, can you?” I said, laughing.

They laughed with me. “Yes. We want to see the girls experience new things, get out of this tiny town. It’s time.”

And there it was again — the separation that comes with losing a child.

What I hadn’t told my friends is that Emily’s transition to adulthood feels uncomfortably similar to losing Ana. I didn’t disclose what I was really afraid of — that I wouldn’t be able to survive losing another child, even though this is a loss that needs to happen. Emily needs to grow up.

I want my daughter to experience new things too. I want her to meet new people and leave the town she’s known all her life. My reticence about her growing up is more about not knowing who I am anymore. It’s about feeling rudderless and unmoored because Ana died too soon.

I couldn’t bear to say any of this to my friends, to tell them that I’m more than afraid of what Emily’s leaving will trigger for me. I’m terrified.

My friend’s words about their daughters leaving for college haunted me.

They’d said, “It’s time.”

For my friends, it is time. Things have lined up the way they expected. Their girls grew up. They can look forward to life in a way that’s not possible for me anymore.

But, for me, time isn’t linear anymore. I’m not sure that there’s a right time for any particular milestone. Sometimes I think we assign deadlines to our lives — and our children’s lives — to give the illusion that we’re in control, that it’s a form of denial.

We list important milestones sequentially and predictably. This keeps us married to the idea that we are entitled to an ordered life, one that looks like this:

Infancy — Childhood — Young Adulthood — Marriage — Midlife — Old Age — Death

But what happens when reality looks like this?

Infancy — Childhood — Death

This is what happened to Ana and it threw every assumption I had about time and planning into chaos.

It added a layer of complexity to how I view Emily’s trajectory through life. She is hitting the milestones as I’d always envisioned she would. But milestones aren’t a given. I’m afraid for her, afraid our luck will run out. Sometimes it feels like I’m the only one that knows this.

Emily will start tenth grade this year. She’s begun selecting the colleges she’d like to apply to. She’s imagining the life she wants to live beyond the confines of her childhood home, away from here, away from me.

It’s time.

I want Emily to grow up and live a happy, successful life because raising an independent child is the goal of every good mother. But I don’t want her to leave. She’s the center of my life. She is my joy. These two desires are fundamentally at odds with each other.

The fading years of active motherhood are like a coin with inevitable growth on one side and terrible uncertainty on the other.

I long for the days when the end of summer reinforced that life was predictable, safe, and normal.

But this is not my reality. For me, September is compounded by the loss of Ana and my experience with the unreliability of life’s narrative. This isn’t fair to Emily. She’s doing everything right. She deserves to look forward without worrying about me.

My goal for the next few years is to try to accept this and to find peace in timelines that deviate from expected norms and to celebrate this new phase of mothering in the margins.

Written by

Occasional poet. Writer of sad essays. Novelist. Birder and amateur photographer. I enjoy trees.

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