This is not a list of what to bring, like toothbrushes and flashlights. This is a list of what to keep in your heart, and what to throw out. Maybe share it with someone you know who is sending a child to college.
My son starts college this week and our house is a buzz with packing up, laundry, dorm shopping, and hugs all around. We all know he is leaving in a few days, but it's just hanging out there like a big sneeze that won't come. You know when it finally does, it will be glorious, but the feeling before it happens makes you walk funny, talk funny and you sort of avoid eye contact.
It's not my first rodeo. Our oldest is already out of school. She has a career, an apartment and two cats. I thought that because I'd been here before, finding every promotional code for dorm-targeted retail offers, that it would be a breeze this time. But it's almost exactly the same as last time. I find myself referring to lists of "what to bring" and reading articles about 'what NOT to bring". I'm trying not to cry in front of my son - he doesn't need to see me sad. And the truth is, I'm not sad at all. I'm without a word for what I am right now.
Since I've been here before and find myself in about the same state of mind as last time, I made myself a list of my own - a list of things to remember and things to forget. And it's not about towels or toothbrushes. It's about family and parenting and saying good-bye without really saying good-bye. I share it with you in the hope that somebody sends it to me when my youngest leaves for college. In 2026. (That's not a typo.)
THINGS TO REMEMBER
They are a little bit sad. It's not just you. This took me a bit to realize last time when our oldest left for school - and again this time. As a parent, we tend to think we are the only one feeling any pull of sadness and that the college-bound love of your life is excited, and ready to get away. And they are, but they are also a little bit sad. In many cases, you're the only version of home they've ever known. And now they're leaving the nest. It's exciting, but it's also a little bit of a bummer. Just a little bit. I try to remember this in the final days if they seem to pull away. And they do. I'm pretty sure it's partly because they are a little bit sad. And partly that you are starting to drive them crazy with the lists and the packing. But sad is in there too.
They are leaving their friends, too. Not just the family. In most cases, we don't go off to college with all of our friends in tow. And toward the end, when it's almost time to leave for school, I've found that my kids want more and more time with their friends. They are holding on to that last little bit of time. We try to honor this, and do not insist on 100% family time in the last days. Pro tip: plan a family vacation a month or so before they go. That creates real family time but includes the bonus of a sweet vacation. It doesn't have to cost a lot, but does require time together. We drove to the Rocky Mountains. I wouldn't trade that time for anything.
They will come home. Someday. When my kids leave for college, I tend to lump the experience into the summer camp emotion bucket. They're going, but it's not forever. They're packing their stuff and moving out, yes. But they're not taking all of their life's memorabilia - that's not the right word but what do you call the accumulated items that add up to 18 years of a full life? Trophies, photo booth pictures with funny faces, ticket stubs and letter jackets. (Pro Tip: Do NOT let them take their high school letter jacket to college. It will not go well.) We clean out their rooms when they go, sort of take ownership back and turn it into a guest room or whatever. But when they come home from school, it's still their room. At least until graduation. That's our thing - you will have your thing and that's cool. My real point is that kids come home from college. You will see them again. Many times.
Younger kids might need a little help adjusting. If you have younger kids, they are also going to feel the absence of their older sibling. We all tend to focus our attention on the college-bound kid when the time comes. And that's how it should be. But we also have to remember that if there are little siblings, they will also be affected by the move. This week when my son goes, we're letting our youngest have a friend sleepover. To take her focus away from losing her big brother and put it squarely where it should be - on swimming, giggling, painting her nails and watching a movie with popcorn. That's not to say that we're pretending her brother didn't leave. In fact, I'm pretty sure she is going with us to help move him in so she can see where he will be and so that it will really sink in that he has gone. But this is a great time to learn how to separate without breaking. And it's also a great time to watch Big Hero 6 for the 13th time. With popcorn.
College is about education. Education is about more than just grades. Grades are important. Good grades are very important. But when we send our kids to college, it's not just about what they learn in books. It's what they learn about doing their own laundry. Having a roommate. Living curfew-free. Making good decisions and living with it when you don't. College is a surfing lesson. And either you can hang or you can't. I don't want to get so caught up in measuring my son's GPA that I forget to ask him about his new friends, his favorite classes, what clubs he is in, who he is voting for and why. We have a rule that we pay for college, but any class that gets less than a B, he has to pay for. That's fair, right? I said it's about more than grades, but it's not a paid country club vacation. He doesn't know that we're going to let the first grade lower than a B slide. Keep that to yourself.
WHAT TO FORGET
There is only one thing on this list for me - minor mistakes from the past. I will forget every dish that wasn't done, every trash day that was forgotten, every load of laundry that ended up on the floor after you washed it for them, every missed curfew, every broken window, every anything that seemed like a big frigging deal when they were in high school. They are going to learn it now, when the rubber meets the road in college. Dishes piling up in college means your roommates will be pissed. Laundry on the floor makes it hard to get a date when your shirt is wrinkled and you look like you crawled out of bed. Not taking out the trash? That starts to smell in a dorm room. These lessons come to light on their own. Oh, and missing curfew - what's curfew? I still remember my 2nd night in college, turning to my roommate while we were out somewhere and realizing we didn't need to call home to stay at the party later. It was exhilarating. I want my son to have that moment. And the responsibility that comes with it. This is how you learn it - on your own.
ON A PERSONAL NOTE
If I could just say this, too. I will miss my son more than I can express. I am so proud of him for making it to 18, getting into a good school, being a stand-out person, having a kind heart and a strong mind. He is a great little brother to Jade and a wonderful big brother to Grace. His father and I are very proud of all that he has become. And no matter what, he's still my little "Boo". Embarrassing fun fact - I used to call him Boo Bear until his big sister pointed out that it sounded a lot like Boob Hair. Kids keep it real, thank goodness for that. Obviously, I had to cut it down to just Boo. ...And I know that means boyfriend/girlfriend to younger people. I don't care. That's what I've always called him. What good is writing for The Huffington Post if you can't embarrass your son on his way out the door to college?
To my son -- we are going to miss you so very much. But you are going to do great. I want you to know that when you go, and I maybe cry a little, it will not be tears of sadness. It's all about love. And huge pride for all that you have become. My boy is leaving for college. Of course I'm going to cry a little, I'm not made of wood over here. :)
I love you, Calen.