Dear moms and dads,
People ask me what it’s like to leave your baby at college; they say they can’t imagine the time when their now-little child will leave them. In the middle of naps and Cheerio snacks and sippy cups, they can’t envision ever having their child not hanging all over them. As they pass through elementary school, the thought of not walking their child to school every day sends them into panic mode. And junior high? Well, most are OK with not having a ‘do-over’ on that one. But then high school comes, and proms and games and dating and driving and suddenly you have one year to plan college and then, graduation.
Honestly, you really shouldn’t think about leaving your kid at college. Enjoy every moment of these 18 years. Moving your baby away from home sucks.
That may be too harsh. I know several parents who say, “I can’t wait to get them out of the house. They’re driving me crazy. They eat too much. They’re lazy and messy and rude and they are READY TO GO.”
And I would agree with that, to a certain extent. But isn’t that the way it’s supposed to work?
Believe me – when you’ve loaded the car and driven to the place they’ll spend the next four years, you might have second thoughts.
No hotel room has ever felt so empty as when I went back to spend the night, knowing she was in her dorm and I wouldn’t see her again for months.
And no drive home was ever so long when I thought about 10 hours in the car, alone, driving 650 miles away from my first born.
And no Friday night was ever so nerve wracking knowing it was the first weekend she would go out and come home on her own, and I would have no clue where she’d been, who she was with, or even if she made it home at all.
In those moments, moms and dads, you might regret having wished so strongly that they would close their bedroom door and leave.
The first year my daughter left for college I admittedly was a wreck. Life had added to the tumult of her leaving home that August with having to care for my son and his seriously broken leg, and a kitchen that flooded not once-but twice.
I guess I should thank the Universe, actually; in some ways it helped get my mind off the empty space in my heart.
I went online for words of advice, to friends who’d been through this before, to my sister and my mom and anyone who could possibly toss me a nugget of wisdom about how to think about her going away. After all this, I realized that there are two ways to think about your child leaving for college:
First: You conjure up the last 18 years of parenting. If you’ve done a decent job, you likely knew your child’s friends and most of their teachers. You knew their coaches and the people they babysat for. You knew their homework assignments, when they had tests and what their grades were. You knew when they left the house in the morning, when they returned for lunch (the tell tale dishes in the sink?) and when they got home from school. You watched their practices and their games, saw them get ready for dances and dates and races. You knew where they were every single night.
And then one day, you carry their suitcase and duffel bags and skis and gear and boxes and boxes of stuff into a room, give them a hug and then you’re gone. Poof. You hope for a text or Snapchat, and head home. Alone.
Or: You think about the last 18 years of parenting, and all the life lessons you’ve taught them. You think back to the friends they’ve made and the relationships they’ve learned to negotiate, and are confident they’ve learned empathy and kindness. You remember the successes and defeats of their sports activities, and know they’ve learned how to persevere. You remember all the nights of studying and the work ethic they’ve developed. You think about how they learned to manage their schedules, use a calendar and get to and from work/school/practice safely and on time. You visualize teaching them to clean the kitchen, use the washer and change their sheets. You’re confident they’ve learned self-care, self-respect and perseverance.
So then on that day, when you’re wondering how in the world can you leave your child so far from home, you have a choice. You can think about this rite of passage and worry about them. You can think about their transition away from home and worry about yourself. You can cry and hug and smile and grit your teeth and walk away knowing you’ll have all these emotions churning inside you until you see them again – Thanksgiving if you’re lucky. You can take comfort in all that you’ve taught them and all that they’ve become. And you’ll likely be like me, and many others, who when they come back home and walk in the house, feel something missing. You’ll gingerly open their bedroom door and see an unmade bed, some discarded bottles of nail polish and lotion, a few dirty towels on the floor and a leftover framed photos of high school friends, and you’ll grab a tissue to wipe the tears that start rolling down your face.
Leaving your child the first time is excruciating. Leaving them the second time isn’t any easier, just different.
So moms and dads, I leave you with one idea that I hope makes this transition easier: remember that this is what life is all about. This is what you’ve prepared them for, even when you didn’t know you were doing it. This is the moment to celebrate and witness the ecstasy of the first part of your parenting job well done. This is the extraordinary in the ordinary right before your eyes. And sooner or later, they’ll be checking back with you for advice. So hang in there. It gets better.