Hold On My Heart

Double-buckling up front because there’s no room left in the car!


It really began five years ago. Five years ago the first cords holding my heart intact began their inevitable, inexorable unfurling, taking with them what was never mine to hold onto in the first place. Depositing a first-born child at college is the dreadful opening of Pandora’s Box, for with that first Great Departure comes the promise of the inevitable departures that will follow.


No sooner does the heart settle and the mind accept a slightly less full nest when the cords are stretched and ripped wide open again, and just like that, the second child is gone. There is now no escaping the reality that this one who is left will, like her brothers before her, respond to the siren song, and my heart will tear just a little bit more.


This week, Time has called her name and has insisted that she too be wrested from my heart. This week, I moved my baby out of her forever bedroom and settled her into her new life in college, and my heart will never be the same.


Mamas like me have a need, a giant-sized need to settle our children into their college homes. Our need to settle them stems from our own role as nest builders, which we instinctively assume in the days and weeks preceding the birth of our first child. This same instinct goes into overdrive every time one of those children leaves to make new homes outside of the familial nest. We need to settle them, to tuck them in. To move them into their new dorm rooms simply does not cover the full spectrum of what a mother needs to do! And fathers and children who understand that will be all the happier for that wisdom!


I was woefully unprepared for my first son to leave, both emotionally and practically. When your son refuses to choose any décor for his new room, it’s hard to make that space feel like home! As much as I dreaded the day of his move-in and tried to steel myself against the emotional tide that was rising up within me, I completely failed at holding it together! My need to settle my son into his dorm room was at complete odds with my husband’s desire for our son to be independent and our son’s desire for us to finish up and move along!


The move-in for my second son was just about as unpleasant for the same reasons his brother experienced. Except this time, the stakes were higher. This time, we had to get it right to keep our son with type-1 diabetes safe. After preparing the dorm room, we still had to talk to the folks at the health office, visit the pharmacy, buy supplies, and meet the RA. Without warning, Orientation began and all the newbie students were whisked away to begin their new lives together while their parents stood open-mouthed, amazed that the first real goodbye in their child’s lifetime could be that sudden or casual.


Not only had I not succeeded in making his room look like home, but I didn’t even have time to buy all of his emergency supplies. Time came for my son and I was left standing alone, tears stinging my face, pondering all he had been through to get to this place.


I know what it is to watch your child suffer the interruption of academic progress due to health struggles and the associated fear that taunts life will never be normal again for your son. And I know the fear that college itself will be just outside of his grasp. And so I rejoice that this departure, as abrupt and difficult as it was, has indeed happened.


These are, of course, just the first of the heart wrenchings that herald more and greater departures to come. Where college is accompanied by the promise of summers and holidays spent together, under the pretense that nothing has changed to disrupt life as we always knew it, a child’s moving out after college keeps up no such charade.


My heart endured a deeper wrenching the summer my firstborn moved out of his upstairs bedroom, with no promise of an imminent return. The baseball men, who for more than a decade have stood sentry along his wallpaper border, will no longer have anyone to look after. The bedroom on the right will remain empty now.


And while I miss him body and soul, I rejoice in this departure too. For it is as it should be. Parting is indeed such sweet sorrow, not so much because of the future joy of being reunited, but because my heart longs for the world as I’ve known it for 23 years.



My daughter’s college move-in, our final one, was different. Better, much better. I guess we’ve learned a thing or two over the years. I was expecting it to be the worst, she is my baby after all, but it was surprisingly the easiest. Girls, with their undeniable preference for Instagram-worthy college dorm rooms, make a mother’s need to settle her offspring into this chapter of their lives easily satisfied. We arranged, we rearranged, we decorated, we hung, we folded, and in the end she was satisfied with her space, and I was satisfied that I had settled her in.


Nevertheless, as sweet as this experience was, I taste the bittersweet knowledge that nothing will ever be the same. My heartstrings have been stretched to their breaking point now. My heart has moved very far beyond my front door and has settled into 3 different cities, in 2 additional states.


Ours is a nest of five. It feels full and right and good when all five of us are present. How does one begin to carry the weight of its inadequacy when it is not full and brimming with life?


And I tell my heart to hold on; this is all as it should be.


These precious ones that I have had the privilege of raising and loving were never mine to hold onto in the first place. They are gifts from God, entrusted to me and to my husband, to love and nurture and care for until they have wings to soar on their own.


It is not fear for their safety and protection that occupies my thoughts – I know the God who knows the number of hairs on their head and calls the stars by name will watch over them better than I ever could. The ache in my heart stems from the knowledge that where their independent lives are just beginning, my forever-together life with them has come to an end.


There is a natural tension between my joy at the adults they are becoming and my sorrow over the children they have left behind. I have loved those little children with every fiber of my being and will miss who they once were.


I long to talk with them like friends and hold their chubby little hands in mine. I want to hear their opinions on current political events and hold them tight as I read yet one more bedtime story to them at night. I long to see them thrive as adults, glimpsing the paths they will choose in life, and I want to brush the hair from their cherubic faces as they drift off to sleep.


But I can’t have it both ways.


They too were created with a purpose, not just to stay my little ones, but to grow into all God intended for them. To glorify God, to love one another, and to make this world a better place.


Hold on my heart; it is all as it should be.







  1. Barri

    Thank you for these beautiful words that capture this past week for me. All is as it should be~my girls settled happily in their new spaces but my heart aches to see and squeeze them every day. Life will be different without them. God is good. Thank you for sharing your heart! ❤️

    • Bonnie O'Neil

      Barri, I’m glad we are traveling this road together and can share the joys and the heartaches. Love you dear friend!


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