For those of us with teenagers heading to college, August can feel a little crazy making. Especially if it is our first, or only, child who is leaving home.
For parents of girls heading to college, I’ve heard it’s a chaotic month of shopping at Target and Bed Bath and Beyond to fill lists of dorm room essentials, searching for hard-to-find cosmetics, getting that last perfect haircut, spray-tanning, and obsessive conversations about navigating roommate issues, course conflicts and multifaceted social waters.
For parents of boys, August is easier. Logistically at least. My 18-year-old son gave me his list: a toothbrush and clothes. Works for me!
It’s the ultimate parenting paradox: we work hard for nearly two decades to protect, nurture, feed and civilize these helpless savants. Then, right when we’re leaning in to pat ourselves on the back in amazement at a job well done, we’re assaulted with an impossible emotional obstacle: we adults have to leave this hopefully-well-raised-nearly-adult child on a strange, far away campus. Alone. Without us. With or without a toothbrush.
Just to spell this out: the idea is that we leave our child at college. Alone. And we drive or fly home. Alone.
I just received an email from my son’s college about the schedule for drop off day. At the bottom of the agenda, the last bullet point reads:
Parent Departure 4pm.
Safe travels, and it was great meeting you.
The orientation for your student begins.
Stay in touch, and connect with us if you have any questions.
This is code for: Get lost, you insane overinvolved parents. Your kid is ours now.
Back in our parents’ day, dropping a kid off at college was a proud milestone. But a Major Life Event? Not quite.
For today’s generation of helicopter parents raising much smaller (and therefore more precious) families, respectable media such as the New York Times, The Washington Post, and PsychCentral describe the parental anguish as “traumatic,” “tragic,” and “desolate.” The send-off rituals are characterized as “elaborate,” “a thief taking what you value most” and “the long trip home.”
I get this. I may actually be all weepy and bereft come September 1 myself. But fortunately, my 18-year-old has so little interest in me at this point, and so little patience with me, that I’ve barely seen him since his high school graduation in May. Summer has been the three-month swan song for the boy who used to sing me ditties he’d learned at daycare and chastise me for not watching every basket he scored. Sure, he sends me sweet little love texts occasionally, when he’d like to stay out past curfew. If he wants money, he still calls me Mommy. But he’s perfected a little flutter-kick hand signal when his friends are around that translates to “Get Lost Now, Little Momma.” So the adjustment to college, for both of us, should be smooth. I’m hoping.
But still, the self-help books tell us Adjusting to Change Takes Time. So let’s go easy on ourselves. Give yourself a month or two of not judging (or try this: ignoring) your reactions. Other parents have survived this milestone, and we probably will too.
Other good self-helpy advice: Don’t Feel Guilty If You Are Glad to See Her Go. Hee hee, here’s the dirty secret of sending a kid to college: some of us are overjoyed, or at least relieved, to have a child skedaddle. Some say the ninth month of pregnancy and the summer after high school have this in common: it gets so uncomfortable that you just want the kid out. A corollary to this one: don’t take it personally that your kid is thrilled to go. Of course he is.
Finally, it’s not reasonable to expect your college-bound child to understand your angst. He or she has enough on their plate, with all that dorm decorating, ice cream socializing, filling unscheduled time, and decision fatigue that comes with college. Turn to Other Parents For Support Instead of Your Kid. This is Parenting 101, the rule we learned when our kids were potty training, but may have forgotten now: other parents are the only ones who won’t think you’re crazy, the only talent pool willing to talk in ludicrous detail about how it feels to suddenly hear from a beloved spawn once a month, instead of once an hour.
In your bleak moments, put the torment aside to remember this: The Trophy of Good Parenting is that our kids WANT to leave the homes we’ve made for them. (And come back early and often, of course.) Some children struggle mightily with leaving the nest, fearing they are not smart or able enough to navigate college or other worlds without us; some children literally never leave home because of physical or emotional challenges. You get an A+, if in 18 short years, you ’ve raised a child to be strong and grounded and mature enough to find his or her own way in the world. Alone.