I did his laundry today. I didn’t have to, but I wanted to.

He wasn’t home, and when I walked past his room and saw the pieces scattered on the floor, that caretaker part of me kicked in; it was instinctual. It was a deep-rooted need to take care of him.

As I picked it up, piece by piece, I could smell his scent on his clothes. The familiar smell of my child brings this sense of peace and calm to my heart that I can’t explain. If you’re a mom, you’ll get it.

He’s off to college next week, along with his older brother. My two boys, one a sophomore at college, the other a senior. And as usual, I mourn. It’s the same thing every year.

Every start of the school year, for the last 16+ years, I have gotten just a little bit sadder. Because each year, they get a little further away. Each year, they become less of a boy and more of a man.

Don’t get me wrong―I am bursting with pride at the young men they’ve become. They are kind and considerate. They are good to the girlfriends in their lives. They see everyone as equals, no matter the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, or their gender. They are the productive citizens of the world that I raised them to be.

They make me laugh. They fill me with this sense of accomplishment that nothing else in my life has ever given me. That’s what we’re supposed to do as mothers. We do our best and then we let them be the adults we raised them to be.

I know I’ll always be their mom. It’s just different now.

The daily cuddles on the couch while watching our favorite cartoons are replaced with the occasional movie night when they’re not out with their friends. The trips to the toy store to buy the latest Lego set have become trips to the store for dorm room supplies. I feel my time with them getting shorter and shorter. Between jobs and friends, girlfriends and hobbies, there isn’t much time left for mom.

They still need me for some things, even though they may not want to admit it. But, it’s not a daily need, not that basic need like it used to be. It’s more like I’ve become a friend, someone they can bounce ideas off of or hang out with sometimes.

In some ways, I am “Mom” in name only.

I am learning to function in this new role. I try to balance myself between wanting to mother them and knowing when to step back. I think it’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life. Your heart is always a mom, no matter how old they get or how independent they become.

I’m slowly adjusting to the new space I occupy in their lives. But, once in a while, I have to stop and smell the sweet scent of childhood, just for a minute. And cry, just a little bit, for the boys they once were.