I dropped my son off at school yesterday. Well, “dropped off” isn’t quite correct: I, along with my spouse, our older daughter and my mom drove up to the Berkshires where we spent the day exploring his new campus, meeting his classmates and teachers and our fellow (equally as anxious) parents, putting away his clothes, making his bed and shopping for the things he forgot (toothpaste) and for the things we wanted to buy to make him more comfortable (egg crate bedding). He watched our efforts with bemusement and then wandered off with his new classmates to explore “town”, promising to return in a few hours to see us off. We thought we were connecting and making ourselves useful; in reality, we were just putting off the inevitable leave-taking.

When he did return, he thanked us for our help, sincerely. In answer to our questions, yes, he had a cool time in town, he thought the kids were interesting, not in an eye-brow raised, quotes around the word kind of a way, but in a “I think I’m already connecting and learning from them and I’m going to be happy and engaged here” way. And then we took pictures. And hugged. And offered up words of guidance which he sort of half-acknowledged. And hugged some more. And then we started to get teary which made him hug us harder.

He was his usual polite self as we lingered, but his eyes began to wander over to where his classmates were playing some game with large foam noodle swords (or so they looked to me), forming teams, sparring, barreling at and shouting to one another. They were having an awesomely fun time and he was clearly itching to join. So we hugged him one last time, piled in the car and drove away.

He didn’t wave goodbye.

For us as parents, this time came too soon. We thought we had another few years before he packed up his things for college. Instead, at 16, he decided to head off to high school in a tiny New England town, surrounded by mountains. It’s only a few hours away, but it feels like a lifetime. I guess that’s because he’s onto a new phase in his life, embracing something different, something bigger, something MORE than what he had here in our own little small town. And what I keep reminding myself, as I sit here in the quiet of my home, this is exactly what I have always wanted and hoped for him, for both my kids — and for myself.

Three years ago, I made the decision to work for a newly formed entity, a social/not for profit start-up. The (some would say) crazy part was that I lived in New England but would work in DC and travel the country pretty much non-stop. But I would have the opportunity to take on new challenges and experience growth and learning while making (I hoped) an audacious difference in the world. When we talked it over, my spouse asked only “if this is important for you, then of course. You have to do it.” My son didn’t say much at all. But then again, he was then a 13-year old boy.

About a year in, as the travel had ramped up and the work became particularly intense, I started to question myself and specifically, how my son and family was being impacted by my decision. I made sure that my son and I were in regular contact, through the wonders of technology when I was away, and through family dinners and one-on-one time when I was home. He seemed okay. Good even. But still. I worried. So I asked him.

Me: “Dude, how’s it going?”
Him: Good.
Me: No, really. How are you.
Him: Fine.
Me: School, friends, life all good?
Him: Yeah. I mean, what’s up, Mom?
Me: It’s just that I’ve been traveling a ton, and I wanted to check in with you to see how you were doing, and how you were feeling about me being away so much.”
Him: Well, it’s not that I don’t miss you, because I do, but I love you and you’re doing something you love that’s really important. And I would never want to make you feel bad about doing that.”

Wise words from an incredibly astute and sensitive teenager. Wise words from anyone and words that I’m now repeating to myself as I resist for the umpteenth time today the urge to call or text him, less than 24 hours after hugging him goodbye. The last thing I want to do is to make him feel bad or pull him back as he is moving forward and embracing this new, wonderful, world-expanding opportunity in his life. Because as excited and curious as he is about this new phase in his life, I know how kind, sensitive and aware he is of other people’s feelings, especially people he loves and cares about.

So as much as my heart aches that he’s no longer just in the next room, it also swells with love for and awe of him. I’ll also see him in 33 days, and then 30 or so days after that, perhaps more if I go to a sports match or art opening. But it will be — and should be — different. He’s in a new space, unchartered waters for both him and us. And it’s uncomfortable and wonderful and fun and vast and I hope he’s embracing it. Because really, that’s what I’ve always wanted and hoped and wished for him. And more importantly, it’s what he wants to do and what is important and what matters to him. And I’m embracing that. And this new phase in my life.