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I stand next to the car, stuffed to the gills for its far-flung trip, and pose with my firstborn before she drives away from her home and mother. It seems an impossible plan given all those years of pressing my cool hand to her hot forehead and straining to see her across a schoolyard.

Back when they were babies, I held my newborns nearly nonstop, rarely liberating them and shaking out my wrists. I was reluctant to even release them to their father, so anxious was I about not squandering a moment when they might be in my embrace. I must have known something was coming.

Fast forward through all the years. All the pudding, all the parks. All the snowsuits and beaches and bicycles. All the love and all the memory. I had to put them down, all four. They grew up and I shook out my wrists. And they strode away. To schools and lovers and bedrooms where no mother hovered at the doorway asking why the cat threw up. Where no family lived. Time has run and now my kids have gone, returned and gone again, loading knapsacks and hatchbacks, finishing school years and relationships.

You’d think I’d be used to it, that I’d have become inured to its injury. But the other thing is truer. I’ve become inured to the idea that they’ll ever be gone for good, I’ve lapsed into self-deception about the enduringness of their company. I’ve convinced myself the inevitable isn’t so.

I can hardly be blamed. I’m a mother, the biggest word in the world, the word that contains all the other words. There’s only one definition for mother and it has everything to do with her connection to her children. That it would be traumatic to watch them go is a hundred miles from surprising.

Only thing is, nobody talks about it. That’s a problem.

Generally speaking, life transitions get decent play. Births, weddings, deaths – all have greeting cards, calendar days. But there’s no observation of at least one massive ordeal in the inventory of human heartbreak and no acceptable expression for the dreadful impact the happy occasion a child’s launch into his world visits on a mother left in hers. No one formally acknowledges this life transition. There’s no solace for the jolt of having the human you raised with such pleasure and purpose, leave you to start again. And so you must start again, too, though your every cell screams for status quo, or even for time travel, back to when their attachment to you was a biologic fact.

Enter society, and this audacious ask it makes of women like it’s a dinner order. Here’s the deal, they might have told us in our hospital beds after slicing our cords: you will raise this human with one goal – to prepare them to leave you. Oh, we knew some ropes of motherhood – the quotidian, the ennui. But we couldn’t have conceived of the contract we were approving as our milk came in. Consigning our children to a future that would scrape the guts from ours. And we couldn’t have imagined how no horror would roar, above the rivers of grief and nostalgia it triggered, at its consummation. We couldn’t have known there’d be so little commotion raised.

We were arrogant in those days, when we read picture books like The Best Loved Doll and had little darlings whose needs gave us definition. We were in safe territory then, could still make flip remarks about a future that was distant and not terrifying, could taunt fate, pretending it couldn’t reach us.

Until it does. And all their declarations about new freedoms, all their pride in their progeny’s triumph, even their sincere plans for the next stage notwithstanding, all women are devastated then. Every last one of us feels this astonishing human development as counterintuitive.

It’s insane, no question, to imagine anything different. Of course, your young must leave you. It’s necessary to separate humanity into layers, insisting the subsequent ones set up their own shop. By growing new humans to usurp old, we maintain our infrastructure and repopulate boards and factories. It’s as natural as death.

But no one says we should like it. Imagine liking that your success as a mother lies in your ability to train your child out of your life.

In English, we have just one word to capture the people we give birth to. They’re our children. Even when they’re not children any more, they’re our children. Mothers get that linguistic constraint – it feels natural not to require updated language when kids grow up, not to have to trade out something clinical for the word that encompasses everything about them.

Because here’s the thing in that maternal city. Even when it empties out, it’s a furnace. Motherhood endures. It survives age and experience and, most shocking, the requirement to relinquish to the cold, rudderless world the person you created and loved, who gave you identity and joy.

It seems likely that men would regard their offspring’s leave-taking with congratulatory satisfaction at having seen through an assignment, maybe one they undertook with reservation, however they subsequently cleaved to it or fell in love. But consider the mother, who almost certainly distinguished herself by her child’s existence from her first knowledge of him. Consider her loss, when this person takes off.

When “empty nest syndrome” was codified in the 1970s, mothers could find community in negotiating this period of profound loneliness and stillness. But what they really wanted was a nod to their stoic compliance with an abominable convention – for their own sake and their daughters’, to rescue their compliance from the same absence of fanfare, the same refusal to acknowledge its awfulness.

It’s not like this everywhere. Two-thirds of young Italians live at home with their parents. Young adults share domestic situations with their parents across the Arab world, where family is valued. And in South Korea, where adults living with parents are “kangaroos,” financial limitations keep multiple generations under one roof.

I think this could prove a miserable recipe, every mouth curdled with resentment and thwarted independence; even I, the most wistful of mothers, wouldn’t choose it for how it would deprive my children of their own adventures. But this shocking prank of nature demanding mothers fulfill a final maternal assignment of releasing their children and pretending it doesn’t murder them is the most distasteful of all.

Laura Pratt lives in Toronto.

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