Not too long ago, I was choosing a crib. Now I’m shopping for dorm sheets. (How did this happen?)    

By Catherine Newman
Photo by Getty Images

Before he was born, I counted eensy pairs of socks. “Do we have enough socks?” I asked my now husband. “Do babies even wear socks? Suddenly I can’t picture a baby with socks on.” The baby’s father shook his head, baffled by the accumulation of miniature clothing for a hypothetical person who was only, at that point, a stubborn guest overstaying his welcome in my body’s cramped guest quarters.

We lived in a sunny room in a friend’s California bungalow, and I sorted our accumulated hand-me-downs obsessively: the jog stroller, the duck-printed nighties with their oddly elasticized bottoms, the Scandinavian mobile with its black and white faces, the Air Jordans, sized for 0–3 months. (A 0-month-old! We would have that.) I inspected the breast pump, which appeared to have been designed by a sadist who gave up sadism for engineering but then still turned out to be secretly a sadist.

In the absence of the actual baby, there were the baby’s things. Only, then the baby came, and the stuff was like the punchline of some joke. Who even cared about any of it? He wouldn’t go in the jog stroller! He never slept in the crib! Mostly he lived in our arms and wore whatever, and we passed him around like a flask of whiskey, drunk and getting drunker on the baby’s scalp smell and smile.

And it’s happening again now, in reverse. This glorious grown person, this golden ball who has rolled glowingly through our lives for 18 years, is getting ready to go to college—and all I can think about is stuff. In the absence of the actual absence, there are the person’s things: the shampoo and toothpaste, the pens and notebooks. And the bedding. 

I am obsessed with the bedding! “Is twin XL just the size of the fitted sheet? Or do you need an XL top sheet too?” The baby’s father shakes his head, shrugs. He loves the boy but doesn’t know, or really care, about dorm bedding specifications. 

I go to Marshalls and study the bedding like it’s material I’ll be tested on in a class about the anatomy of loss. Does a mattress cover go over or under a foam topper—or is the foam topper instead of it? Google these questions and find yourself in a forest full of lost mothers calling out in their grief and fear, except the only language available to them is percale.

On drop-off day, I make his bed while his roommate’s mom makes her son’s bed, and we laugh at ourselves. I understand the expression “lump in your throat” with sudden urgency. There is a rock in my throat, an anvil. There is the piano in my throat that I watched him play last night, his sister on guitar beside him, perfection threaded through with dread, weighted down with this lump in my throat.

The many things are unpacked and put away, the toiletries stashed, the socks piled in a drawer, the sheets pulled tight. He came into our lives two weeks late, but now he’s leaving right on time. I’ve been running alongside his bike for 18 years and I’m supposed to wave cheerfully as he turns into a pedaling speck in the distance. And all I can do is text him later. “Is your bed comfortable?” I write, and he writes back immediately, “So comfortable! Thank you.”