It's been almost three weeks since I left my youngest child at college. Given how many times I've done this since I took my eldest, seven years ago, you might think it would be old hat. You'd think I was done crying over kids who leave home -- that this transition would be easy? You'd be wrong. My youngest is one of the kindest, most endearing people I know. Having him in our home has been a joy for 19 years, and seeing him off to this exciting new phase in his life was, selfishly, much harder than I anticipated.
Embracing all the change that comes with his departure is 100 paper cuts of adjustment. I've been working on balance from the time he was accepted to college, through packing up his things to go, orientation, and each day that he's been gone since. I wasn't maudlin around him, or in any way clingy. I ignored that tiny voice inside that was screaming: Where did all the years go? You promised to stay my little boy! I'm not ready for this! What he saw instead was a competent mother, who was there to help him settle in at college. He's attending an incredible college that is perfectly suited to him. The five days of orientation we shared left me confident that he'll be happy there. As I prepared to fly home the last day, his room looked surprisingly lived-in; any necessary shopping was done, he was excited about classes and getting settled.
Still, as I gathered my things and gave him a hug, on the last night, it finally sunk in for him too. "Wait! Where are you going?" I could see the inevitable suddenly occur to him. This is it darlin'. I'm headed out in the morning; this is our goodbye -- until Thanksgiving. He winced. Again, he's that kid, my sentimental one. I wanted to grab him and say, Oh Man! I'm going to miss you so much! But he knows that. I knew that this goodbye was (almost) as hard for him as it was for me, so I didn't make it harder. I looked around his dorm room, and said: You're going to have an amazing time here; I'm so excited for you!
It may be hard to accept the passage of time, but I meant it. He'll be fine, and so will I. This is something we've been working toward since he was a little boy. He walked me across campus to my car, and gave me a longer-than-usual hug. When I waved goodbye and drove away, he was heading out for the first of what will surely be many nights of socializing and managing his own life, and I felt myself beginning the process of letting go of the boy who left our home.
I will no longer be waiting up, or checking in on daily things. As I did with his siblings, I'll go to sleep each night, from now on, not knowing if he is safe in his bed. I won't call him to dinner; in fact, most days I won't know what he eats for dinner. His friends won't be people I've known since they were in kindergarten. I'll have to assume the best, and sleep without knowing the things I've taken for granted for his entire life. That's the new reality when our kids go off to college; we all shift and resettle into a new normal. And this is how it should be.
Seeing my youngest child off to college was not at all like I thought it would be. I was less flustered than so many parents I met or saw over the four days of orientation, who were saying goodbye to their first college-bound child. I was fine when my son didn't text me throughout orientation days, when we were on different schedules. Though I wrestled with the impending goodbye, I slept fine in my hotel room the first night he slept in his dorm. When we all heard that several kids landed in trouble after a campus party, I wasn't wondering if my kid had been there (he told me he was) or whether he'd gotten in trouble but wasn't telling me; he's always been honest with us. I'm not worried about him partying or looking for thrills; it's not in his character. I feel lucky in that regard. He's not my only child; I've seen pretty much everything.
What did take me by surprise this time around, was how real it all felt, and how keenly aware I was of each transition. This is the last time I'll do these things. This was not my first Bed, Bath and Beyond rodeo. I went there knowing what my son would need and what he wouldn't. Still, I felt all of those pillows and comforters as if I haven't done this before, because it is his first time pimping out a dorm. Each of my kids had different plans for their dorms, but some things never change: you need wall hooks; your kid who has thrown his clothes on the floor forever, suddenly wants hangers; storage bins are critical, and it all matters so much. Buying some Nutella or ramen, for late night snacks, was a personal touch.
The first time I went to a college orientation, my eldest child was moving across the country and it was the first time I was watching one of my children leave home. I was overwhelmed by the statistics that colleges are obliged to share, regarding things like safety, student mental health, partying and accepting your child's autonomy. I was that mom who stood at the door as my girl blithely told me goodbye, and ran off to her first dorm meeting. I held my head high all the way to the parking lot, but cried for most of the two-hour drive to Boston's Logan airport. By the time I took my middle child to college, I'd seen enough of college life that it wasn't as emotional. He was confident and excited; he met friends day one, and I knew he'd do great. I felt a distinct lump in my throat knowing that he'd be living a flight away, but the transition was smoother.
However, I heard everything in a new way this time. I experienced the four days of orientation through the bittersweet filter of "this is the last time I'll do this." This is the last time I'll help deck out a new dorm, negotiate meal plans, meet first roommates, and listen to professors and Chancellors tell me that I'm making the best investment in sending my child to this college over any other college. This is the last time I'll have to tear a Band-Aid off my heart and accept that one of my children is flying off into world ... and that he/she will never come home the same chick that left.
The next time I see my son he will have spent months navigating a whole new world too. He'll, undoubtedly, have tried a lot of new things. I know he'll come home with a few of his own Band-Aids torn off. He will have learned that the rigors of a challenging four-year college are not the same as a high school AP class. He will learn that the world is not as comfortable as one where you've known all of your friends since kindergarten, and they have your back. He'll also discover new passions and interests that he probably didn't look for in that sheltered world of old friends, a dog who's loved him for 15 years and a school system so sure that they had him pegged, that they didn't offer other options. College is full of options.
I tuned-in to different messages this time and I heard new things about sending my child off to college. I listened with renewed interest as we talked about encouraging self-advocacy in our college-age children, after years of a various levels of enablement. I was impressed by a brilliant presentation where we were reminded to call and just chat, not check up on our kids. It's so important that they hear about what's happening at home: We've bought a new chair for the T.V. room, dad's going on a bike weekend with friends and I'm going to explore Portland with mine... Or, news that can be much harder from a distance: the death of a pet, health changes, etc.. Our kids need to hear what's happening while they're away, so they don't come home to changes that suggest their absence doesn't matter.
As confident and excited as your kids might be to start this new phase, they will be sleeping in a new room, with someone they probably just met. When we first took my eldest son to school, many years ago, his little brother said to me, on the way home, "I feel so sad for E." Why, I asked, he's going to have a great time! "Tonight he's going to sleep in a room where no one loves him; that's so sad," he told me. The first night my now 19-year-old boy slept in his dorm room for the first time, his little- boy voice echoed in my head, even if I know he too will have a great time.
This can be daunting, no matter how alpha or introverted your child is. While we don't need to coddle or worry about every change they face, it's good to simply ask "how is that going?" -- "That" being any number of adjustments that your child may be facing. Leading with: Are you getting your assignments done? Did you drink at the party, or are you seeing someone, is likely to shut the lines of communication down-- even if you want the answers. One parent wisely suggested scheduling informational conversations with kids, and leaving other chats for shooting the breeze. I love that idea! When both of you know that you're going to have a serious talk about grades/parties/money, etc., it's likely to go much better than when you blind-side them with these same questions. Lead with "how have things been going, are you having fun?"
Many parents don't realize that colleges cannot legally call you or share information about your child, health-related or academics, without your child's consent, regardless of who is paying the tuition. I knew this, but was relieved to hear that more schools now have release of information forms that allow your child to give permission to share these things. You might not hear whether they went to get free condoms at the health center, but you may hear about their grades -- if you've both signed a release.
In an era where parents are often very involved in their children's lives, up until the moment they leave for college, all of these changes can be challenging for kids and parents alike. What role do you, as a parent, want to play in your child's college life? The age-old advice of "choose your battles wisely" is prudent. How often do you really need to hear from your child, to feel comfortable? Negotiate that and work out a mutually agreeable plan; then honor it. Do you really need to know everything your child is doing? Letting go is critical as your children grow up and figure out how to navigate the world they'll live in as adults. There are bound to be some bumps in the road, but that's how we learned and that's how our kids will learn too.
Change isn't always easy, but it's vital. While I miss my youngest -- his humor, his sparkle, his presence in our home -- I'm comforted knowing that he's charting his future and living out his choices, just as I'm charting my new normal. We're all right where we're supposed to be, and I'm learning to embrace that.
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