Girl Gone: the Aftermath of Mothering. ~ Amy Beth Barnes

Via Amy Beth Barneson Nov 24, 2013

for Amy Barnes Article (do not use)

Relephant reads:

The Good Mother.

The Love Between a Mother & Daughter Is Forever.

Stop Worrying About Your Kids.

I’m standing in line at the grocery store listening to the young woman behind me chat on the phone.

Her tone is a razor wire of accommodating tension. “It’s in the driveway totally out of gas… mhmm. Yes, I know… thanks. Yeah, I love you, too….‘Bye Mom.”

And then comes the sound, kind of a snorty “Kuh.” Without seeing her face, I can clearly sense her eyes rolling back in her head with loathsome dismissal.

In that instant I know her story. I tell it to myself as I load shopping bags into my exhausted eight-seater mommy mobile. She must be a freshman at the local university, she is broke and that was her mother on the phone, wherever she is, maybe in Southern California.

The mom falls to pieces at the sight of that empty bedroom. So she sends money in an attempt to remain essential to her daughter’s life. I know this, because of the watermelon of sadness wedged between my heart and my belly button, in the wake of my own daughter leaving six weeks ago.

She’s gone. And I mean gone.

She’s got her back to me and she’s running into the brilliant sunrise of her life with middle finger fully erect.

I think of tenderly gathering her blonde hair into thin ponytails and securing them with matching glittery rubber bands. I think of the bubble baths, the beach walks, the warm milk and the bedtime stories. Then, I think of the screaming, the door slamming, the emergency room visits, the calls to the sheriff and the sound of her car flying up our dirt road ten minutes after curfew.

It’s like I’ve woken up under a coffee table, the morning after a party. I’ve lost my footing, and am wondering where my bra is. I stand and pat myself down to see if everything is still in place after the whirlwind of raising Lucy Jane.

My son said to me the other day, “If you could go back and do it again, would you?” I said yes. His eyes widened, “Really? You’d do all of those years again?”

I thought about all of those years, the grocery lists and dirty dishes. The shit, the vomit, the sleepless nights. Yes. I would do it again. But differently. Maybe I would keep my distance. I wouldn’t try so hard. I wouldn’t worry so much. I’d maybe worry a little bit more about me.

The moment Lucy Jane was born I was jolted into the passion and ache of motherhood. I was sunk. Consumed. Hooked. I loved her more than anything. I bought organic baby food and cloth diapers. I chose the stuffed animal with just the right facial expression and nap to its fur. I bought her the prettiest prom dress in the store.

Where do I put all of that devotion now? Do I get another cat? Maybe a small dog?

I take comfort in my two teenage sons still living at home. But Lucy Jane’s leaving changed everything. I look at the boys differently now. I’m slightly suspicious. They saw what just happened here. I distance myself, but at the same time I want to clobber them with an anguished love; to hold them here forever.

But they will leave, just like their sister did. That’s their job.

Six months ago, Lucy’s departure didn’t feel possible. We went through the motions of college tours and applications, but it didn’t sink in that she would ever actually live in a different zip code. And here I stand in the quiet aftermath of her exit, feeling like somebody came along and punched me.

When I made the choice to be a mother I had no idea what I was getting into. Which doesn’t seem entirely fair. Because with the joy of mothering comes an awful lot of pain. For instance, does it ever feel okay to not see your daughter for three months, six months, a year? I guess it must, but while I wait for this to feel normal, I get the sense that I’ve been tricked. Like how a Big Mac never looks as good as it does on TV.

As this all sinks in, I’ll just keep on making oatmeal for my adolescent hangers-on, until, they too, tie their shoes and pack their bags and find their way out the door.

And then what? Holy shit. Just a few more years and my nest is well and truly empty.

I want to be a good mother but suddenly I’m fighting a wild urge to race out the door myself, to discover where my life went, hoping all of the possibilities might still be there for me, the same as they were when I was 24, not 44.

I picked up a copy of Bust magazine yesterday and was struck by the writing and art and ambition held in those pages. I couldn’t sleep last night because of it.

Did I give my chance away to knowing the precise location of the Bob the Builder Band-Aids on the cat room shelf? To playing Barbies on the floor and hot glue gunning poster boards at midnight?

I’m grasping for my bootstraps. I want to pull them up, snap the elastic firm against my shoulders and move forward, but they are sprawled at my feet, tangled and worn. I don’t know where I’m going, anyway. In a panic, I Google graduate schools and fire off article pitches to the local paper.

I’m desperate to redefine myself, and can’t help but measure the years I have left to accomplish all that I dreamed of as a little girl.

“You are grieving,” a friend said recently. “Give yourself time to grieve.” Maybe it wouldn’t feel so much like grieving if Lucy Jane would just let me in a little. Make me a small part of her new life.

But there’s no time to talk. She’s overwhelmed. It’s midterm week. She won’t be home till Christmas. She’s on the floor with a fever and tonsillitis and can’t make it downstairs to do her laundry. She’s staying up till five a.m. She’s eating tortilla chips for breakfast and, look, there’s a picture of her wasted on Facebook.

I visit and she’s pale and exhausted. There’s a place for her in my hotel room bed, but she wants to go home. Home now is not with her mother. Home is a dorm room with fairy lights and photos pinned to the wall and friends whose names I don’t know, knocking at her door. It is her own kettle. Her own sink. Her own life.

Not mine.

Mine is sitting here in my big cold house with the cat snoring on my desk. Mine is finding my own way. I’m a middle- aged woman now. My beautiful, feisty daughter is grown and gone. I’m no longer the young mother who bakes cupcakes for the school carnival, or bags up party favors in dollar store cellophane or hunches with scoop in hand while ice cream drips down my forearms asking, “Chocolate or vanilla?” my peripheral vision teeming with children who clamber for the slice of cake with the most icing.

I guess maybe I don’t want to do those years again. I want to find out what happens next. It feels like I gave the last piece of cake to the girl with the blonde ponytails.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there’s one out there waiting just for me, loaded up with a thick wavy slab of icing.

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Editor: Renée Picard

{photo: Amy Barnes at Flickr}

About Amy Beth Barnes

Amy Beth Barnes is a mother, writer and freelance designer living on twenty acres of redwood trees in coastal Northern California. At her side, she has four cats, three dogs, 21 chickens, three ducks, three teenagers, a husband and a fish. Amy is enormously grateful for the wild herd of women in her life. A rabid volunteer and Mills College alum she has previously published work in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Arcata Eye, The North Coast Journal, The McKinleyville Press and The North Devon Gazette.

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47 Responses to “Girl Gone: the Aftermath of Mothering. ~ Amy Beth Barnes”

  1. Marrissa says:

    Thank you so much! As my husband and I are entering baby fever–it is inspiring to read your story. I thank you for your kind, warm way of dancing around the sensitive subject of moving on to the next stage of life. Congratulations on such a wonderful article! :)

    • Amy Barnes says:

      Brace! Brace! That fever will wrap around your heart and never let go, Marissa. I wish you and your husband all the best in this parenting adventure there are up up ups and way low downs. But there's nothing better in life.
      xo
      –Amy

    • Lindsey says:

      I'm in the same boat, Marrissa — just beginning the path to motherhood — and reading this is so touchingly beautiful. Perspective from a place far down in the road in the parenting journey sheds light on the enormity of what we are getting ourselves into :)

  2. Gina says:

    Oh how this made me cry! I’m 40 years old with a 5 year old daughter who is currently very sick with some kind of virus or perhaps the flu and is sleeping in her bedroom.

    I already think of and dread the day she leaves for college! Bringing our angel into this world was a miracle.. 6 miscarriages and I almost died 3 times during labor and delivery.. Not to mention after having her something took over my body and I went from perfectly healthy to constantly sick all the time. I have been diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, Rheumatoid Arthritis, chronic Fatigue Syndrome and IBS to name a few. I got bit by a tick several years ago and was not treated properly so now I have chronic Lyme Disease on top of all the other illnesses I endure. So my beautiful daughter is quite a miracle, a wonderful blessing, the light of my life and my only child for I cannot have any more.

    This is such a beautiful article, so bittersweet. I cried, I admit. I cried hard but I thank you for writing it. When my time comes I’ll remember this I’m certain and I’ll know that how I’ll be feeling.. Well, I’ll know that I’m not alone.

    Thank you again Amy. <3 xoxo

    • Amy Barnes says:

      Gina,
      I can't thank you enough for your heartfelt reply. What a journey you have had. There is something reassuring about knowing you're not alone in your feelings, to know that it is all part of the human experience. For me, breaking open the conversation is vital to weathering the storms of motherhood, to hear other women say, "me, too."
      It sounds to me like no matter what, your girl was meant to be here with you.
      Here's to the years!
      Take good care,
      –Amy

      • Gina says:

        Amy,

        I learned when I became a Mom that nothing I’ve experienced is “new under the sun”.

        I found out from the pediatrician that my little girl has Croup and she is SO ill. It’s heartbreaking to hear the nasty cough of Croup. When we left the appointment I thought of this article again. I thought about my daughter growing up and me never making it all better again, no more bedtime giggle fests in the dark because we’re telling each other secrets that Daddy can’t know, no more bedtime stories or lazy pajama day Sundays, no more sitting in my lap, holding my hand, no more calling me Mommy. No more calling me Mommy…. That one got me. Ouch! Right in the heart. Ohh the sound of my angel from down the hall “Good night. I love you Mommy!”

        I am a very emotional person. An overly empathetic person. A worry wart. I know, deep down, the day my Cara goes is the day a large part of me goes with her.

        My love to you.

        Take care and I look forward to more writing from you.

  3. @DanaGornall says:

    I loved this. I have one going off to college next year and two more at home. (next year one will be entering high school.) I felt your words in my bones. Please write more.

    • Amy Barnes says:

      Dana. Thank you so very much for your reply. As a writer, that's all I could ever hope for.
      I will do my very best to write it all down as I go and launch it into the world with abandon.
      Hold tight.
      –Amy

  4. Laura Kutney @laurakutney says:

    Amy—You are the rockstar of words! Of course there is a slice of cake waiting! I believe there is a whole cake! I can relate, as I have three kids (12-16 1/2), but who's counting? Haha

    I am terrified about them leaving someday. I can already feel the watermelon. Love to you as you find your way. I just know you will make it to the other side with flying colors! xo

    • Amy Barnes says:

      Ha! Laura! A WHOLE cake?
      I was thinking about your whole cake notion as I drove to town yesterday, and I realized, why the heck not? Why not shoot for the whole darned cake?
      I like it.
      Best of luck with your very own watermelon. Did you know they float? There's something to keep in mind.
      Love to you, too.
      –Amy

  5. Deanna says:

    Amy, that was beautiful! I had tears rolling down my face. My son left for bootcamp in July, I didn't know I was going to be grieving like a loved ones death. Your story hit home. Beautifully written.

    Deanna Presley-Miller

    • Amy Barnes says:

      Deanna, it does (totally) feel like a death. Or a very distinct turning of a page. And it's scary, scary scary. This whole experience has made me think about how mothers over the years must have felt sending their children off to war. I guess I thought this as a way to give myself perspective… but there you are, doing kinda just that. But I think back to your Facebook photos of his ceremony and him looking all kinds of handsome in his military outfit, and you beside him all kinds of proud. This really is bittersweet, the marching of time, the shifting of positions on the family food chain, the sadness and the joy. Hang in there! xo –Amy

  6. Jyoti Wind says:

    I really loved this…as a mom whose 5 kids have made their way into the world, the only daughter being the last one, I understand your feelings so well written here. I loved how you wrote, navigating all the instances and the descriptions…I felt present to your life and to the life that was mine a good while ago. When my life became my own again, I began the very things that had been waiting in the wings…self-publishing my 7th book just now. There is a gloriously creative life after raising kids, no matter what age you are. Thank you!

    • Amy Barnes says:

      Hi Jyoti… the stories of the "gloriously creative life after raising kids" are getting me through this achey moment. Seven books! You go, girl! How perfectly inspiring. I am ready to launch! Thank you for your response. Take care, –Amy

  7. Barbara says:

    ***Sigh*****

    What was that line from Steel Magnolias? "time marches on and sooner or later you realize…..it's marching right across your face…."

    I alternate between the excitement of a new chapter and the nostalgia of raising my own feisty blond hair Princess. Thank you for such wonderful words.

  8. Cindy says:

    I could have written this myself … every word of it rang true for me. I have 3 sons, and only one teenage one left with me at home now and even now I see signs every day that he's moving on … and I'm not. I too wonder what is next for me … what else can I possibly do with my life when my boys have been such a huge part of my day, my years, my life, for almost 28 years? I hear you about struggling to find yourself again. Your post shows me, and women like me, that we're not alone. Thank you for that!

    • Amy Barnes says:

      Cindy, it is as if the movie just stopped playing, and we're left alone in the theater, waiting for the guy up in the booth to rethread the film.
      But I guess what we need to do is, (and I'm just now trying to figure this out), walk out into the sunshine of the day and make our own story. It's our turn.
      xo
      –Amy

  9. My youngest left home a couple of years back and this year shifted to Canada ( I live in NZ) and the day I dropped him at the airpost to fly to the other side of the world felt like the rug had been pulled out from beneath me. some days, eight months later it still feels that way. Thank God for Skype and Facebook for keeping me in touch.

    • Amy Barnes says:

      Caitlin, at 23 I married a British man, we lived in England for a while, then eventually settled in California to be near my mom. It is now that I think about his parents, and how heartbroken they must have been, and still are, to have their son living 10,000 miles away. But in our twenties you couldn't have convinced us to do anything different. As he has grown older and had children of his own, my husband has struggled with a lot of regret and guilt for such a clueless, self-absorbed decision in his youth. I remember the look on his father's face at the airport all those years ago, and I had no idea what we were doing to his heart.
      Take care of yourself. –Amy

  10. Mae says:

    What an achingly sweet truth you told. I have been there and have come out on the other side. Soon, and you will think it's too soon, you will fall in love with your child's babies and society and your children will put you on that shelf and there you will stay. Probably. I know, you think you will be vital and sassy and travel when you want. I also thought that. I am now just happy to be of some use.

    • Amy Barnes says:

      Oh, Mae… I am seeing this through my mother's experience. I know she feels like she's been shelved. Lucy leaving was just as hard on her somehow as it has been on me. I think she's in a whole new place of feeling disused and un-needed. This prospect scares me. I don't want her to feel that way, and I don't want to feel that way as my children drift further and further into their lives. I guess this is why I'm so bent on redefining myself, trying to dodge this void that's coming at me like a train. I hope to remain vital, I hope to travel and giggle with my girlfriends as my hairs continue to push in grey and my wrinkles set in in earnest. Time will tell, I guess. I wish you all the best. –Amy

  11. Chris says:

    I remember feeling the same. All of a sudden, it was over. Funny tho', he's back, turns out life is pretty hard out there in the real world. Who knew?

  12. kelley says:

    I sobbed my way though this beautiful heartache of a story. My solo child, a daughter, is a junior and away at college (w/ middle finger fully erect at times too.) My nest is empty. I sometimes I long for bake sales, cake walks and carpool.

    • Amy Barnes says:

      Kelley,
      A friend of mine keeps enthusiastically encouraging me to think about my "Second Act." She went to grad school in her late 40's, and has a whole new career in her early 50's. She's standing on her own two feet, and all kinds of wise. This is what I'm shooting for, as my nest empties and my Costco cupcake carrier gathers dust on the garage shelf. There are days when I convince myself I can pull it, and days when I want to hide in my attic with a bottle of wine :)
      I'm glad my piece touched you ~ that's all a writer can hope for. Take care, –Amy

      • Kelleu says:

        Hey Amy, Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I guess I started thinking about Act 2 a few years back. I am in grad school and if all goes well will complete my doctorate next summer. Yay! Regardless, I am sometimes floored by how fast the time went and miss the days of my sweet girl in spinning round in her "twirly dresses" and collasping into my lap for hugs and kisses.

        Love the story. It struck a nerve. Peace and kindess to you.

  13. Lisa says:

    Thank you for putting into words what I’ve been trying to verbalize for about a year now. I threw my life into my daughter and raising her. I loved being her Mom and all that came with it…. The birthday parties, cheerleading, school activities, dance recitals, church groups and runny noses. I ran the home that all the kids came to and I gave her everything, after all I was told I would never have children. So my engagement gift at only 21 was a baby. Did I want to admit deep down I wanted a girl so bad that I dared not to even think about it, never. Now, she has forgotten it all and when I chase her like a love struck preteen boy in love, when I wave my hands and yell out to remind her of our love and our story, she laughs and looks down at me. She thinks I’m using her for my self esteem. She has no idea that I just wonder where it all went and that no one ever had to teach me to love her and be a Mommy, but apparently someone has to teach me how to let go. Someone has to teach me to accept my sweet little big brown eyed baby girl who never left my side, now thinks I’m someone to be tossed aside and that’s normal. Someone needs to give me my heart back….. She took it when she left and every time she calls, due to the fact she needs something, I get tricked again into thinking it’s because she’s come back to me, when in fact she just needs me to fix a problem so she can run away again. No one told me it would hurt this much:(

    • Amy Barnes says:

      Oh my, Lisa. It appears that you and I need to meet fireside, in a dark coffee shop with a large box of Kleenex. Deep breath. You wrote that you "chase her like a love struck preteen boy." Yes. That pretty much nails it. This ache is like so many things nobody tells you about – like how your feet grow half a size with pregnancy. (Who knew?) This letting go is not unlike having a body part removed. But this body part is out in the world, driving in Thanksgiving traffic and negotiating her days with us at the bottom of her list. Urgh. Yes. It hurts. I hope you have some close mama friends to endure this alongside you. With love, –Amy

  14. Penelope says:

    I am still grieving my daughter leaving New Zealand for Australia (where the jobs are). Nobody prepared me for the pain of separation and confusion and … shock at how I felt. What? They leave home? Being single makes it even harder too and I am glad I still have second daughter with me. If she goes to Australia … argh!!! can I follow them around? I don't think so but they are all I have. Thank you for writing this.

    • Amy Barnes says:

      I think absolutely you can follow them around! I would! My husband is British, and recently got all three of our children UK passports, so they can live/work pretty much anywhere they want… I am thrilled for them, but like you, am wary (terrified) of being left behind. Hold tight. Sending love & strength, –Amy

  15. suebobdavis says:

    A lovely post. It will take a few years, but things will flip back around. I remember being 25 or so and I was suddenly floored by realizing all that my parents did for me. It took my breath away.

    Now I'm 52 and I'm like the parent and my 86-year-old mom is like the kid. Circle of life.

    • Amy Barnes says:

      Hi Sue, I keep hearing that 25 is the magical age when daughters retract that middle finger, calm the heck down, turn around and come back. Suffice to say I'm bracing myself for the next seven years as I witness her rambunctious, fearless adventuring. It's like watching the view from an airplane window… my hand against the glass and a tear in my eye, worried like crazy. Deep breath. This is all part of it, right? Thank you for your comment, and take care. –Amy

  16. Carmen Goddard says:

    Just lovely..my eldest daughter left home in February, we couldn't live together..she is now at Uni in London, i miss her though and today i heard my middle child has now got a place at a Uni in Manchester…and i feel sad..but proud, she is like a best friend. I will miss her too!

  17. Birgit says:

    I, too, had an empty nest at 44–my husband and I were going through endless cycles of infertility treatments. I finally gave birth to two adorable girls at 46. I am now 51 and am going back to work after being home for 6 1/2 years. They will start college when I turn 65. Take a deep breath, you have an entire lifetime ahead of you.

  18. Dina says:

    Well I am now 41 and both of my daughters are grown. In 2009 I saw my oldest off to the US Army, then in 2012 I helped my youngest move into an apartment with her boyfriend. My life is so different now. I almomst can't remeber what life was like before becomong "Mom". My oldest is back from the Army but has also moved in with her boyfriend and then in June she will be moving about 2 hours away to attend school. As it is, she visits me often and I look forward to them like they will give me oxygen to finally breathe, then I see her boyfriend hug her and comfort her in the ways I used to and it makes me so very sad. I have now devotd most of my life to my work as a nurse. Caring for others seems to help me cope a bit.

  19. Carolyn says:

    Beautiful. Crying. Relating. Thank you.

  20. babs says:

    Thank you so much for your elegant words. My princes have not gone to college but to live with their dad and the pain that comes with it is unbearable. For 14 years they were my sun and moon, I lived for them and wanted nothing more then to see/make them smile. It is so hard knowing that I once had the :"in" on all their activities and social hours. Now the only way to stay updated it to check their facebook or intagram. Im trying now to figure out my "whats next". It is like be giving the keys to utopia but I cant figure out which one unlocks the door. I want something for myself but would give anything to just be mom again.

  21. Janine says:

    My mum said one of the worst days of her life was when I left for university. The 19 year old me couldn’t really give a shit about that, I was starting my new and exciting life. My mum was also 44 when I left, just a few years older than I am now. She too returned home to my two younger brothers.

    Fast forward 20 plus years and my mum and I are so close. She has helped me with childcare and I couldn’t ask for a better relationship. We talk everyday.

    I dread the day my 5 year old daughter leaves. I was thinking about it just today. I relish every moment with her knowing that in not too many years time she will no longer think I am the greatest thing on earth.

    I can only hope that when I set her free she’ll come back to me. Thank you for your honest and thought provoking article.

    Janine in London UK

  22. Andrew says:

    I feel your pain. I hope you write to her… often. She will appreciate this as much as anything in times to come. Namaste

  23. Anusha says:

    Hi,

    I did cry after reading this post. I am an Indian woman. Not a mother yet. But I can completely feel each and every word written by you. In India it is very common for kids to stay with their parents, daughters stay till they get married.
    A son stays at his parent's with his wife even after marriage. These days, because of working at different locations or space constraints children do move out of their parents' home.

    I shifted out of my parent's home when I got married. Inspite of being in the same city and living hardly 45 minutes away from each other, I do miss my mom. My mom felt the same pangs that you have described when I left the home. I being the only child, was the center of her life. And suddenly she had an empty home, empty room, empty life. We are slowly coming to terms with our new lives. But mom and I do talk about how life takes a drastic turn and no matter how much ever you prepare yourself, how ever long you know that its coming, when it hits you, you are taken for a toss.

    Thanks for the wonderful post.

  24. Kattie says:

    Love this piece! You are amazing with your words. I have a 6 year old daughter at home and time has already flown by and I dread the day when she'll leave me. Id love to read more of your writing.

  25. Shiloh Sophia says:

    Amy. I bawled my way through this article for ten million personal reasons. Of course I love your writing style – love the rip, rant, rave and role of the story of she's gone. I want to call Lucy Jane and say, YA, BUT WTF when you are a bit older you will realize WHO YOU GOT TO HAVE AS YOU MAMA and you don't NEED to be so teenager cliche about this separation thing. But I am sure she would hang up her sparkled phone on me. I remember her dancing in a tutu I guess she knows how wild you were? You run in her of course. And to you I say one word.

    Write.
    and keep writing.

  26. Holly says:

    "Mine is finding my own way. I’m a middle- aged woman now. My beautiful, feisty daughter is grown and gone. I’m no longer the young mother who bakes cupcakes for the school carnival, or bags up party favors in dollar store cellophane or hunches with scoop in hand while ice cream drips down my forearms asking, “Chocolate or vanilla?” my peripheral vision teeming with children who clamber for the slice of cake with the most icing." Oh how I can relate to that although I have a Son and he is 27, so much of my life (and my Husband's) was spent working in the Snack Bar and being the Football Mom, and feeding groups of Boys (like a Litter of Puppies) and being the "house that everyone came to" and then it's over and you just miss it so much. Even though we want to move on and start the next Chapter of our Lives but if we were lucky to have a good experience,you miss it.
    Great writing and so meaningful.

  27. Kelly says:

    This is truly beautiful! I am a new college graduate and this year has been one of the hardest of my life, but I can't imagine how hard it has been for my mother. I just want to tell you that no matter what your daughter loves you, no matter where you go in life no one can take the place of your mom. I try to call my mom everyday and make sure she's alright but thank you for reminding me to be extra sensitive to the fact that she is struggling too and that she needs me as much as I need her.

    Thank you for the lovely article

  28. Melissa says:

    Oh my God. Your honesty terrifies me. I have a three-year-old. I know this but I don't. You said this so well I can't breathe. I wish you peace in this transition.

  29. Charra says:

    Maybe it's just me but when I read "She’s gone. And I mean gone." I thought this was written about the true loss of a child. (especially coupled with the title).
    While the experience of sending a child to college (or military or adulthood in general) is common, valid experience, loaded with loss and frustration, I think the answer isn't to "grieve". See the "slice of cake" as being able to revel in having successfully raised a child who can navigate the world without you…and who is not truly gone.

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