As we send our babies to college, do we do enough to celebrate the village that raised them?

by Heidi Stevens

I’m sending my baby to college in a few minutes.

Fine, a few months.

It feels like minutes.

It has all felt like minutes. She was born five minutes ago. She started walking five minutes ago. She stopped napping five minutes ago. She started driving five minutes ago. She turned me into a whole new person with a whole new, very full, very tender, very breakable heart a few minutes ago.

And in a few minutes — fine, a few months — I’ll move her into a dorm and I’ll drive away and I’ll sob, I’m assuming, about her leaving me. About her empty chair at the dinner table. About going days and weeks without kissing her head. About my unreasonable, undeniable, unbelievable good fortune. About her unreasonably, undeniably, unbelievably bright future. The tears will be happy, mostly. Grateful, completely.

I shared her college news on Facebook the other day, as we do, and the comments touched my very full, very tender, very breakable heart. Because I think that it’s beautiful the way we find and build and tend to our villages. Even if they’re virtual.

I think this country prizes rugged individualism and self-made success and go-it-alone courage to an almost pathological degree, and I think when we let our guards down, we recognize the fallacy in all of that.

We need each other. It truly does take a village.

When I went back to work after maternity leave (a few minutes ago), I brought my daughter every day to the home of a loving, lively family on Chicago’s South Side. I dressed her in a Chicago Cubs onesie on her first day there. The matriarch said, “She can come here, but she can’t wear that ever again.” They lived 5 blocks from the White Sox ballpark. I laughed. She said, “I’m serious.” And she was.

They were my first village. They taught me everything that mattered. They calmed me down. They reminded me to laugh. They taught my daughter to cook and read and sing to Justin Bieber. They loved her like she was family and, eventually, I understood that we were. They raised her.

A year after my son was born, I got very sick and I was hospitalized for a while and we decided, their dad and I, that we should hire a nanny instead of having me drive the kids to and from someone’s house every day.

The nanny was beautiful and young and full of energy and all the things I could no longer relate to but my kids adored. She loved my kids like they were family and, eventually, I understood that we were.

I told her at the end of her shift one day that my marriage was ending and my kids and I were moving and she told me she wished her parents got divorced when she was younger. Everyone would have been happier, she told me. I will never forget that. I held onto that like a life preserver.

Later, after my divorce, we had another nanny who played the ukelele and the accordion, and made videos with my kids where they would sing and she would play instruments, and she would send them to me at work and I would sob. About my unreasonable, undeniable, unbelievable good fortune. About all of their unreasonably, undeniably, unbelievably bright futures.

The tears were happy, mostly. Grateful, completely. She loved my kids like they were family and, eventually, I understood that we were.

All along the way, from the minute she was born (a few minutes ago), my parents filled my daughter’s world with wonder and adventure and a gentle reminder and an overt example to care for the Earth. She never, not for one second, could possibly question whether they adored her with their whole, entire hearts.

She had so many good teachers. She had so many good coaches. She had so many good friends. So many of her friends had so many good parents and so many good grandparents, and so many good aunts and uncles and neighbors and beliefs and rituals and meals and traditions and trips, and so many of them expanded her heart and her world and mine too. Mine too.

How can I possibly repay all of that?

I probably can’t. But I can say this: Mothering is the single greatest, scariest, truest thing I’ve ever done and will ever do. Sending my first-born child to college means a chapter of that mothering is closing, and a new one is about to open. And it’s got me feeling contemplative and raw and, above all else, grateful beyond belief — for the people who showed us the way and cheered us on and shaped us and loved us and picked us up and let us into their worlds and joined us in ours.

Our village.

I don’t know if we build in enough space to celebrate those villages in our holidays and ceremonies and greeting card aisles. But I know that I would be lost without mine. And I carry them with me always. Every minute.

Heidi Stevens is the Director of External Affairs at the TMW Center for Early Learning + Public Health, a translational research institute at the University of Chicago. She worked for 23 years as a writer and editor at the Chicago Tribune, writing a daily column called Balancing Act for a decade. She currently maintains a nationally syndicated column.