By Dara Levan

I can still feel my clammy hands and pounding heart. The teen years: Panic in the disco. I’m not referring to attending a Nirvana or Depeche Mode concert.

Quizzes. Tests. Finals. The minutes before a math exam would trigger anxiety. I still strive for excellence and have learned to channel the nerves into my writing. After graduating high school, college, and then earning my master’s degree, I assumed my days of testing were done.

Gosh was I wrong. Experiences shape us. Trials and stages test us. But I didn’t have a clue about preparing to send my freshman son to college.

Mother — Don’t Smother

The second I felt Alec’s heartbeat pulsing in my womb, I knew letting him go would be tough. I pushed myself to mother without smothering. Even when my kids were infants, I promised to always make time for my husband and our marriage. We traveled alone and had date nights to nurture our relationship. We still do.

I consciously encourage my kids’ independence. They are both confident, ethical, self-sufficient, and kind teens who are generally comfortable in their own skin. I am grateful for and proud of them.

When the ball dropped in Times Square, announcing this decade, so did my stomach. And with every flip of the calendar, as each month passed, my emotions erupted in ways I never expected.

Who Am I?

I’d even glance at our walnut table and chairs, nestled in a rectangular nook, and sob because soon we’d be a party of three. After these brief outbursts, I’d look at my husband and say, “What on earth is wrong with me? Who am I?”

Grief. That is the only word that may come close to explaining how I felt. While I realize sending a freshman to college in the midst of a pandemic certainly fueled some of these feelings, I couldn’t seem to separate the pulp from the juice. Just when I was sure I’d been squeezed dry, the pitcher refilled and spilled yet again.

What’s Wrong With Me?

I journaled, talked to friends, meditated, and more. In July, I even called my doctor and asked if perhaps I’d started peri-menopause? He said it was possible since I was 46 years old. Thanks for that reminder, doc. I insisted on having my hormones checked. The labs would certainly explain why the hell I couldn’t get a grip, right?

My doctor shared the results; apparently my body pumps as much estrogen as my eyes produce tears. Yippee! Then what was the reason? I am a grounded woman who’s experienced more loss than I care to share. And I’m certain that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Why wasn’t I elated that my firstborn applied and was accepted early to his top choice? Who is this person that always sees the cup half full and lives with gratitude? I seriously didn’t recognize this wrecked, weepy version of me.

Compassion and Comedy

My 16-year-old daughter, during one of my uncharacteristic meltdowns, hugged me tightly. She offered to be my weighted blanket. I laughed and thanked her for the comical compassion.

Alec reached toward me as I apologized. We finished dinner, and I had a few things to say. So, I held his hands and looked directly into his toffee-brown eyes, which are so similar to my own. Alec shifted in his seat and seemed confused.

“You know how much I love and will miss you, right? I’m not supposed to say the miss you part — darn it! I hope my raw, unleashed emotions aren’t scary for you, Alec. I realize I’ve cried more this year than in your entire life,” I said steadily. The well was dry at this point. Yay me. I passed this self-imposed test to have a tear-free talk with my eldest and only son.

I continued and said, “Above all else, I am proud beyond words of who you are and continue to become. I’m excited for you to begin college! This’ll be…” My voice cracked as I struggled to compose myself. Epic fail, my kids would say (at least for me) as I intentionally avoided curious and concerned gazes.

“Mom, are you crying?” Alec asked. He stood up, as I unsuccessfully attempted to swallow the sob spouting from my mouth. “No, honey, I am…” Suddenly my son wrapped his arms around me. His 5 foot, 8-inch body bent down as he hugged me, and he’s not typically one who likes touch.

“It’s okay, mom. Let it out. Just like you always tell me; it’s not healthy to hold in your emotions,” he said as I reluctantly relaxed into his strong, solid arms.

“I feel badly. I cannot control or anticipate when the next round will occur! You do know how happy and psyched I am for you, yes?” I sniffed. “And I love you so deeply that letting you go hurts in such a shocking, surprising way. I never expected that I’d react so intensely.”

Passing the Exam

And in that moment, I realized I hadn’t failed him, myself, or the proverbial parenting exam. I passed with flying colors. My son had seen me come undone again and again this year.

As I processed this, it hit me that tears shed weren’t just triggered by Alec’s leaving the nest. Wounds from my own childhood split open, oozed, and began to heal. I wept for myself as I had painful flashbacks, which became a movie in my mind.

After we said goodbye in August, I did not cry. I smiled with an inner peace and sensed Alec would soar. And he has. In just a few months, Alec has taken on leadership roles, made several friends, and most of all, is thriving during the strangest time.

A Midterm Bonus

We decided that waiting until Thanksgiving to see him was too long for our family. So, we drove nearly 11 hours to visit Alec. The campus felt eerily empty and devoid of collegiate energy. His joy, growth, and strong sense of self filled my heart. This midterm test, this 48-hour visit, was a bonus.

Alec continues to choose wisely, share openly, and connect with us. Are things different? Of course. But I had feared that our family’s three-legged stool would wobble. It’s certainly shifted but it is just as sturdy.

The lessons I’ve learned extend beyond parenthood. I cry less often and without apology, knowing that with each release, I am stronger and wiser. And I now understand that it’s impossible to prepare and study for all of life’s tests.

When I am not writing, you can find me hanging with my three dogs, walking in nature, taking photos, and connecting with family/friends. In addition to my monthly newsletter, I founded and host a podcast called Every Soul Has a Story. Please visit my online home WWW.DARALEVAN.COM to subscribe! Or connect with me directly and email

Dara is a writer, podcaster, and founder of Every Soul Has a Story, which includes her weekly blog and podcast. Visit her online home at