Parenting has taught me one life lesson after another over the years; my first college drop off hammered home five of them. I imagined this event countless times and now it’s a reality. After years of parenting and then the agonizing season of applications, visits, weighing options, nagging, a GAP year, shopping, (did I mention nagging), packing, unpacking … my son is officially a college freshman. He is 615 miles or approximately 10 and a half hours away at the University of Pittsburgh.
For 19 years my oldest son and I have walked the journey of life side by side and fostered a bond I can’t really put into words. I truly feel his lack of physical presence while his car sits unused in the driveway. But I’m technically only a half empty-nester, and I am looking forward to having some special time with solely my other son. So, as we drove the long-trek home, I pondered the feelings and realizations I was having to make sense of the dichotomy of sadness and joy.
The Term “Empty Nester” Sells Us Short.
What does that mean? Kids going off to college means our lives are gaping holes without our children physically nearby? If we are raising them with the idea they should stay – or we’re empty without them in our home –
…then we’re going at this all wrong.
For years, my husband has gently tried to shed light on this life lesson saying, ‘Make sure you’re Mom plus. Make time for your hobbies and your joy outside of the kids and work. Can you describe who you will be when they move out?’
This was not to downplay the importance of being “Mom,” but rather to emphasize that we are women who also happen to be a mom; we need to maintain our own identity during their childhood.
My boys know I’d throw myself in front of a bus and work tirelessly for them. But I’ve fostered my own friendships, social activities, goals and successes that frankly don’t involve my children at all.
Right now, my own identity of self holds even more importance since my oldest is off soaring to find more of his own.
It’s Just Not About Us.
It’s harsh, but this first college drop off is not about me, you or our collective mom sadness or wants. Those feelings are valid, but it’s what one does with feelings that matters, and it’s on us to manage it well for their sake.
This moment is about THEIR accomplishments and time to fly. Also, your child has been, and will continue to feel, a rollercoaster of their own emotions about this change. This is often the first time a child is leaving behind a familiar lifestyle for a long stretch of time for a new, unfamiliar, and surprising environment. Feelings of anxiety, sadness, excitement, fear – name it, they’re feeling it just like you.
Hold space for their needs and honor this incredibly exciting moment in their life!
They need your support more than your stress or sadness just like all these other years that led up to this moment. Life lesson 2 – We are still Mom – who is there for them to lean on no matter when or what.
If they don’t reach out immediately, it means you did your job.
The parenting goal has been to raise strong, independent humans. The Catch-22? They are now strong, independent humans! I need to sit back and give him the space to figure it out and include me when he feels inclined. Step One? NOT reaching out in the first week post drop off to see how he is doing!
I waited breathlessly for a text or call. And waited. And I knew that this is normal.
My son is navigating a new environment, meeting new people, figuring out his academic schedule, adjusting to having a roommate, etc. He has a ton going on and calling or texting may not be his first priority. Kids leaving for college means they are immersed in something new.
In other words, he’s doing what we taught him… figuring it out on his own.
This life lesson is hard! I have no idea what he’s doing and who he is with. After goodbyes, symbolically his roommate’s parents and we walked one way and both boys walked in the opposite direction. With great difficulty, I continue to squelch my desire to reach out all the time; it is better to leave him be for a while and prove my trust in him and in our relationship.
There’s Joy and Required Acceptance of Transition.
This goodbye is a moment you will both remember. I think the multiple hugs my son gave were the tightest in history. While I choked up saying I loved him and stay true to himself, his response to me was “I’ve learned. I love you. Will YOU be ok?” He owned his evolving role in our relationship that moment, and I was honored to witness this.
But it also hammered home the life lesson about acceptance – that while you may not like something, you DO need to accept it to move forward. I am forced to confront that no matter how much we stay in touch, as his life diverges from my direct path, I will see less of his life. Every year, we would share fewer 1:1 experiences; I will rely on hearing about his life from him.
We are starting to reshape our family, though, and accept that it is not an ending – but a beginning. We’re at the early stages of a new adventure together – one that offers me the chance to meet and learn from this budding new adult, friend and – still – son. Besides, he knows he can always come home!
They Always Need your Love.
When that goodbye hug comes, don’t tell them to wash whites and darks separately, to take aspirin after drinking, to study in the library vs the dorm or to get enough sleep (although do feel free to drop those nuggets in later weeks).
DO look them in the eye and tell them AGAIN that you love them. Remind them of a life lesson you’ve been teaching them – that they are never alone if they need support. In the weeks leading up to our poignant moment, my son needed me to say and show him only that. And our goodbye moment was just another opportunity to gift him my unconditional and unwavering love, trust and support – just that.
I do miss him! But I’m here to say that you will, astonishingly, survive this transition of your kids leaving for college – just as you did every transition since you conceived your child. You’ve spent what seems simultaneously like a lifetime, as well as the blink of an eye, making sure your child is ready for this amazing milestone. Take a moment to congratulate yourself! You did it!