We called it the cupcake dress. Strapless and long enough to hide her comfortable dancing shoes, it sparkled with little faux jewels hand sewn into the bodice. Purchased months ago at the Junior League thrift shop, its voluminous layers of light pink chiffon and tulle skimmed my daughter’s curves like some bespoke gown from a Paris atelier.
Today the cupcake dress hangs abandoned on the back of her bedroom door—a diaphanous testament to the abrupt and unceremonious end to her high school career.
Across the country, millions of seniors mourn the loss of their cancelled proms: the festivities missed, the romances unrealized, the photos unposted to social media. Following a glittering evening at Philadelphia’s Constitution Center, my daughter and her friends had planned an afterparty and an early morning drive down to the Jersey shore to see the sunrise. Instead, she sits beside me on the couch, huddled in a blanket, catching up on Trevor Noah’s Daily Social Distancing Show.
As the weeks blur into months of COVID-19 lockdown, I know she regrets the loss of her senior prom and graduation ceremony—but not as much as I do. My daughter doesn’t realize that these rituals and rites of passage are as important for parents as they are for students.
As a mother of one, I have long prepared for the solar plexus punch of my impending empty nest. I ask myself the questions all parents ask when their children reach the legal age of majority: Is this newly minted adult the same sleeping baby I once cradled in my arms? How did the last eighteen years go so fast?
Events like prom and graduation celebrate the end of childhood. Seeing our sons and daughters in their rented tuxedos and formal frocks reminds us that they are old enough to get married and start families of their own. Watching our children walk across a stage in their caps and gowns provides a cognitive bookend to our successful efforts as parents.
Although they may still want guidance—and many of us will remain embroiled in the sturm und drang of their newly independent lives—as juridical adults, our kids become fully responsible for the management of their own affairs.
But what kind of world is out there waiting for them? We live in a country with no guaranteed health insurance, no federally mandated sick pay or parental leave, and with a social safety net made of fraying cheesecloth. Pervasive sexism and racism, as well as Himalayan levels of wealth inequality, shatter the myth of American meritocracy.
Even before the crisis, mountains of student debt and the mercurial gig economy crushed our twenty-somethings in puddles of depression.
And now, all the chaos and upheaval, the illness and death, the exploding unemployment and the imploding economy bring out my fiercest maternal instincts. Letting our children go is hard enough in normal circumstances. Launching them into their futures in the middle of a global pandemic feels impossible.
An aspiring chemistry major, my daughter understands the epidemiological necessity of Pennsylvania’s stay-at-home order and expresses little resentment. But she did hope to get a summer job working at the local library. It remains “closed until further notice.”
I planned to bring five boxes of Kleenex for the drive after dropping her off at college in the fall. Now it is unclear if she will be going to campus at all. At the exact moment when I should be encouraging her independence and autonomy, I want to shelter and protect her. The continued uncertainty means she might remain home through the end of the year. Maybe through 2021, too.
She laughs beside me as Noah does one of his impressions of Trump. I watch her through the corner of my eye, imagining the hour we would have spent curling her elbow-length brunette hair into Botticellian ringlets. I would have zipped her into the cupcake dress and lent her an evening bag just big enough for her phone, her lipstick and her debit card.
Probably I would have worried all night, sleepless until she stumbled into the house bleary-eyed and exhausted the next morning but knowing that she was out there living her life, basking with her friends in the gentle morning rays of a new day.
I feel tears coming so I stand up and pretend to head upstairs to the bathroom. I open her bedroom door, step inside and stare at the unworn gown. Fingering a rhinestone, I close my eyes and remember the toddler in a pink Sleeping Beauty costume standing on my feet and giggling as we slow danced in circles around the kitchen.
Yes, the prom would have helped me take those first tentative steps toward letting her go, toward letting her become the confident, self-sufficient young woman I want her to be. She should be out there joining the fight for a new and better world. But I wasn’t really ready. For me, there is one selfish silver lining to this whole coronavirus catastrophe: I can justify holding on to my baby girl—even if only for a little while longer.