A mom ponders her identity as her firstborn leaves for college

CAPTION: (Suwannee River, 07/29/2006) Ryland (cq) tells his mother, Lane DeGregory (cq) a story as they cruise in a houseboat on the Suwannee River.
SUMMARY: Travel feature
(Times photo by Lara Cerri)
CAPTION: (Suwannee River, 07/29/2006) Ryland (cq) tells his mother, Lane DeGregory (cq) a story as they cruise in a houseboat on the Suwannee River. SUMMARY: Travel feature (Times photo by Lara Cerri)
Published Sept. 2, 2015

All year, I watched our son plan his escape.

He started designing his dorm room in June, downloading the dimensions, measuring to make sure all his computer equipment would fit, ordering a tapestry of his favorite band to blanket the wall above his new bed.

"I'm ready," he kept telling me. "I got this."

For him, summer seemed too long.

For me, college orientation arrived like an ambush.

My husband and I accompanied our son to Orlando in July and booked a room at a Comfort Suites. Ryland finally would get to stay in a dorm.

"Welcome to the University of Central Florida!" cried a gung-ho guide, bounding onto a stage in a noisy ballroom. He walked 600 soon-to-be college students and their parents through a brief history of the institution, then divided our teenagers into groups.

For the rest of the day, we would be in separate sessions. We could connect with our kids again at 5 p.m., before they checked into the dorms.

"Go on," said a mom in front of me, nudging her daughter toward the door. "I got three more kids behind you who need your room."

"I love you, Brian!" shouted a woman near the aisle. "I'll miss you!"

Ryland tried to scoot past me, but I snuck in a fist bump. "See you tonight," I called, watching him walk away.

"But you can text me sooner … "

• • •

I remember the first time I said it out loud. I was picking up my son from his first day at day care; he was barely 4 months old. I had gone back to work at the newspaper, back to being my byline. But that afternoon, after hours without him, I hurried to the day care center and proudly proclaimed:

"I'm Ryland's mom."

I was no longer just Lane. My maiden and married names no longer defined me. I had the best title in the world: Ryland's mom.

Being his mom made me a better person. It gave me a sense of purpose, even in the smallest tasks: I was no longer just doing laundry or getting groceries; I was keeping his tiny T-shirts clean and making sure he ate carrots.

I loved being able to hold him and help him and watch him grow, from an unsteady toddler to running the Little League bases, from a shy boy to lead snare drummer in the high school marching band, all the while becoming more confident. Always with me beside him, just in case.

Then, when he didn't need me to hold his hand anymore, or show him how to bat or drive him to birthday parties, when I began to believe I had helped cultivate a self-sufficient person I could hang out with instead of take care of, he started pulling away, holing up in his man cave and escaping into cyberspace, then leaving with his friends for evenings, weekends — and soon, whole semesters.

His final year of high school was filled with silly lasts, chances I tried to cling to while I could: Can I chaperone your last band trip? Can I come take pictures before prom? Can I help plan the graduation banquet?

For him, heading off to college is a grand new beginning, a chance to finally be on his own and figure out who he is meant to be.

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For me, it feels like an ending — of everything I wanted, everything I worked toward, everything I love and long to hold on to. Of being a mom.

• • •

As the almost-freshmen fanned out to meet their new advisers, my husband and I followed the other parents to a room where two screens faced long rows of chairs.

Letting Go & Staying Connected, said the title slide. A Parenting Challenge.

A slim man in a pressed shirt stepped behind the podium. "This is really about letting go," said the school counselor. "But a few years back, we had to add that 'Staying Connected' part, because some parents just got too upset."

His name is Bill Blank. He's the head of the university's career development office and an expert in human lifespan development. He specializes in PAPAs — post-adolescent, pre-adults. "I'm also the father of three college students," he said. "So I have a lot of understanding and respect for what you all are going through."

He called this transitional period of parenting "the launch years." For many families, he said, this is the time of the most emotional turmoil. But few guides exist on how to handle it.

Look at bookstores, he said. Shelves of volumes guide you through pregnancy and infancy, surviving the toddler years. But few talk about the harder challenge of raising emerging adults.

A cartoon flashed across the screens: an infant curled in a crib with seven video cameras strapped to the rails. Our kids are the most sheltered generation, said the counselor. We watch over them constantly, from baby monitors to day-care cameras to tracking them on their iPhones.

"We need to give them a break."

It's important for college students to try things on their own, even if they fail, he said. You have to give them room to grow and wonder, to learn to do laundry and make French toast and figure out what they really want.

For them to form new friends and bonds, their families need to fade into the background.

"You're no longer in control," he told us.

"They have to live the lives that they're about to create …

"You got them this far. Now it's time for you all to figure out what you're going to do once they're gone."

"Party!" roared a man in front of me, pumping a fist.

"Cry," sniffed a woman behind me.

I wiped the tears off my chin and checked my phone, hoping for a text from Ryland, knowing I shouldn't bother him.

• • •

Ryland always has relished his space and independence.

The day we brought him home from the hospital, he slept in his crib alone. All night. What baby does that?

While other kids kept crawling into their parents' beds through kindergarten, Ryland never needed anyone nearby, even in the dark.

He shared a room with his little brother at first and chose the top bunk to carve out a secret space where even the dogs couldn't get to him. He spent hours secluded up there, reading and dreaming and playing on his Game Boy.

By the time he was 10, he begged for his own room. So we cleared the drums out of the guest room and bought a real mattress for the futon. Ryland tacked baseball pennants onto the walls, hung a Lamborghini poster by the window. On the back of the door, he taped a map of the world he couldn't wait to explore.

Through high school he spent more and more time holed up alone, drumming on his practice pad, texting his girlfriend, gaming with his boys. On weekends I had to bribe him out with bacon.

I tried to back off, not bug him too much. But I knew he couldn't wait until he was away, where no one would complain about Pop-Tart crumbs in the sheets.

In the past year I have begun to get glimpses of the man my son will become. I marvel at his intuition with computers. I'm proud of his quiet confidence, measured emotions, compassion for his friends.

I am thrilled that he will finally get to take charge of his future.

But without him, who will play the new Glitch Mob song for me? Or give me an excuse to watch wrestling? How will I walk past his empty room without crying?

He might not need me anymore. But I still need him.

I realize that we have it so much easier than our parents. When I was in college, I waited in the dorm hall every Sunday at 2 p.m. for my parents' weekly call. I can talk to Ryland on his cell phone any time he answers, send him a text message whenever I want, follow him on Facebook. I even just got on Instagram!

But it's not the same thing as having him at home, hearing his "Good morning!" as he pads to the kitchen for Cheerios, listening to him laughing with his friends as he blows up another infidel on the Internet, watching The Daily Show in our pajamas with the dogs.

A year from now, our younger son will head to college, too, leaving my nest entirely empty.

I'm not worried about who my boys will be without me.

But without them, who will I be?

• • •

For the rest of the day at UCF, we were inundated by information about everything our kids would be experiencing without us. Housing services. Dining halls. The giant gym.

I kept wondering what Ryland was doing, whether he had signed up for his classes or met anyone to hang out with. I kept trying to picture him here, in his new home.

A few minutes after 5 p.m., nine hours after we had split up, we found him outside the ballroom, surrounded by four high school classmates who also will be freshmen. He didn't introduce us. But I couldn't wait to say those words again.

"Hello!" I announced.

"I'm Ryland's mom."

I asked about his day. Fine, Ryland said. No, he didn't have his schedule yet. Yes, of course he had seen the gym. "We're heading to dinner," he said, walking away.

My husband shrugged. But I called, "Wait!"

Ryland turned around, rolling his eyes.

"Your sheets and pillow are still in the car," I said. "Should we just drop them at your dorm?"

For a second, our son stood there while his classmates waited. Then he came back to us. "No," he said softly. "I'll have plenty of time in the dorm. Can you get me later? I'd rather stay with you, for tonight."

Contact Lane DeGregory at Follow @LaneDeGregory.