Family & Friends

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Mother

When my daughter was in preschool, she came home one day and begged me to have a baby. “I don’t want to be a lonely child,” she told me tearfully. She had overheard someone say she was an “only child,” and her four-year old misinterpretation of that was both poetic and heartbreaking.

As she grew older, I often emphasized the benefits she enjoyed as an only child. The nicer vacations, the extravagant birthdays and Christmases, the pony. (Yes, there was an actual pony involved.) Economically speaking, her father and I had far fewer worries than families with two, three, or four offspring.

And, eventually, watching friends whose younger siblings quickly evolved from adorable babies to obnoxious little brothers and sisters, she came to realize that there was, indeed, an upside.

But no one warned me about what would happen when being the mother of an only child meant that I would be an empty-nester overnight. If becoming a mother meant going from zero to sixty in the final few minutes it took to push her out, sending her off to college meant going from sixty to zero. Suddenly, eighteen and a half years of my life were over. My entire raison d’être was gone. I had more time on my hands (and less purpose) than I could remember.

All of a sudden, I recognized the wisdom of the Windsors’ concept of “the heir and the spare.” Not that any child of ours would reap royal rewards. But it would certainly have softened the blow to have another child or two to focus on once my baby was gone.

The drive back from Ohio to our home north of Boston was fourteen hours and change. I cried through several contiguous states.

That first week, I cleaned her room (it truly looked as if a tsunami had hit after what turned out to be, for no good reason, last-minute packing). As I put T-shirts in drawers and hung discarded dresses in her closet, I was reminded of the days I spent folding and re-folding onesies when I set up her nursery so many years ago. Of course, the difference was obvious and added to my melancholy. In 1997, I was preparing for her arrival. Now I was organizing the aftermath of her departure.

Still, it made me feel close to her. Or, at least, it killed some time. And I had time. Boy, did I have time.

Of course, I tried to make the most of all that newfound free time. I threw myself into my business. I volunteered; I went to the theater. My husband and I took long weekend trips with other couples. But, something — or rather, someone — was definitely missing. I had friends — other mothers — who were happy to see their daughters head off. In the past couple of years, those girls had become so wild or difficult or moody, or all of the above, that the break was welcome. I didn’t envy them, though. The fact that my daughter and I had such a strong, generally good (and usually great) relationship made our parting particularly bittersweet, with emphasis on the bitter.

Since that fateful drop-off I’ve established a few rituals that help. I write her once a week, a quick letter or a “Thinking about you” greeting card. Every couple of weeks I send her a package. Nothing much—silly holiday socks, small desk toys, treats, goofy things I find in the Target $1 aisle. And, God bless texting. Although I rarely call her, I do connect daily by sending funny pictures, an emoji, or even a “bitmoji,” a customized emoji that looks like me, which my daughter taught me how to create. (And in this way, old dogs learn new tricks out of necessity.)

Naturally, all of these gestures are more for me than for her. She settled in quickly and became quite independent. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of times she’s called with a problem. And what I quickly realized was that she was calling because she needed a sounding board, not because she wanted one of us to step in. Week one, she accidentally parked in a faculty spot and got a ticket. With no prompting from us, she went to the campus police station to contest it. Her equestrian coach wasn’t giving her the opportunities she expected. I offered to call the woman, and my daughter’s immediate “Nooooooooooooo!” reaction made it clear that my intervention was not just unnecessary; it would be humiliating. When her course schedule was completely mixed up, we didn’t even hear about it until after it was resolved.

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  • Cara April 15, 2018 at 7:19 am

    Loved this story also! I can truly identify with the title “Long Distance Mother” in so many ways. I found it by chance while looking for royalty free pics to plug into my own similar Sunday Morning Blog/Writing. How quickly the years go by. Bravo for you in finding a helpful way to share this and also for your eloquent story! I look forward to reading even more…

  • Jo Shafer April 10, 2018 at 12:34 pm

    Loved this story! I have two children, so I didn’t cry on my drive home from taking my first-born to his new campus, three hours from home. I was, however, a little miffed that he had left me waiting in his dorm’s lobby while he — all by himself! — set up his room, then came down to hug me and walk me out to the car. Sweet boy that he was, he asked me, “Mom, will you be all right?” Awww….

    Then home to my second born, a daughter just starting high school and a marvelous four years with an only child again. When she left for the same college, I did cry afterwards, as well as after her marriage four years later.

    Silly, those tears, for my children’s independent, stable, adulthood lives had been my mothering goals all along. But I can miss them, can’t I?

  • Andrea April 10, 2018 at 8:43 am

    Thanks Alexandra for this piece. We have all been there and experienced this time of “letting go”. Now for some “ME” time!