On Saturday, our daughter Valerie, celebrated her 18th birthday. It makes no difference to Valerie that her July 17th birthday means that she is a “Cancer” in the zodiac signs. What is far more meaningful to her is that she was born under the “Nordstrom Anniversary Sale” sign. Her birthday always falls during the two weeks of their sale so she can celebrate her birthday with a back-to-school shopping trip.

This year when we shopped at Nordstrom, we weren’t just buying clothes for school, we were buying clothes that Valerie would be taking with her when she goes away to college. And sending a child off to college right out of high school is a new experience for us.

Our older son moved away in stages: first moving into a house in town with some buddies while he was still at the JC and then finding and apartment close to his four-year school, San Francisco State. For the first year he was at SFSU, he often drove home to see a movie with Steve or rummage through the cupboards for chips and salsa. But now that he has deposited his car in our driveway in Petaluma so he doesn’t have to have the burden of a car in the city, we won’t be seeing him unless he invites us to come visit him. However, I still find some parental reassurance in knowing that he is only an hour away.

So when I think of Valerie going away to college in Southern California and not seeing her for weeks or even months at a time, it brings to mind the saddest movie that I’ve seen in a long time: “Toy Story 3.” Just thinking of the scene when Andy’s mom walks into his stripped and empty room and the reality of his leaving hits her, I get choked up.

For Andy’s mom, it seems like yesterday that he was playing with Woody and Buzz. For me, it’s hard to believe that 14 years have passed since Valerie was sitting at a Little Tikes table next to the window in her room, coloring precisely inside the lines in a Disney princess coloring book using markers that she had gotten in a McDonald’s Happy Meal.

The years have flown by, especially the last four in high school and now it is hard for me to believe that she’s 18 and going away. I know saying goodbye will be hard. I’ve talked to several mothers who said they cried the entire way home after they moved their child into the dorm and said goodbye.

But I also know that all of the zillions of mothers who have watched their daughters go away to college didn’t love them any less than I do, and somehow, both the parents and the kids made the adjustment just fine.

Steve and I believe that it will be better than “fine,” it’s going to be good for all of us. Valerie will get more resourceful and become more of her own person, her younger sister gets a chance to shine, and Steve and I can get back to being a couple first, and parents, second.

Right now, our family is going through a growth spurt…and that can be a little painful.