My husband, the youngest of seven children, was preparing to start college in Chicago, more than 800 miles from the family home in rural Pennsylvania. His parents kindly invited me to make the cross-country car trip with them to see him get settled at his new school. As we left campus, I sat in the back seat feeling very much like the bereaved girlfriend who wouldn’t see her boyfriend for another 108 days! I slowly became aware of my future father-in-law, who while navigating unfamiliar Chicago streets and traffic, reached over and patted his wife’s hand, a small gesture of comfort. She was silently crying! I didn’t understand; I was the one who had something to cry about! And so, in my infinite eighteen-year-old wisdom that believed that if you practice something enough times you’ll get good at it, I said something to the effect of, “What’s the matter? He’s the youngest. Don’t you have it down by now?”
If only I knew then what I know now! Whether you are preparing to send your first or your tenth to college, you will still have unexpected emotions rise to the surface. There are plenty of articles and advice to be found for the college-bound student: Make new friends but choose wisely; study hard but make time for fun; get to know your professors and ask for help when you need it. But what about the parent of the college-bound? What about you, mom and dad?
The role you’ve played for the last eighteen years as protector, problem-fixer, and parent is about to change dramatically. Acknowledge that not only your student but you, too, are about to undergo a transition. Life as you have known it is about to take a big turn. You may feel a bit disoriented as you manage your new role.
To help you get through the weeks before departing for campus and the days you may be on campus for dorm set-up and orientation, stay focused on your student. Join in their excitement, curiosity, and planning. Even though your heart might be in your throat, keep your focus on them. They are starting a new adventure. They are starting the next phase of maturity. Because they may have some anxiety inside, don’t add to their uncertainties by crying, literally or figuratively, on their shoulders. Save the tears for the ride home. It is not uncommon in the weeks after dropping your son or daughter off, to walk by the empty room and well up, or catch a certain smell that is him and start to cry. That’s an understandable part of the grieving process as you come to grips with the new normal.
Like a toddler, you may feel separation anxiety. For the last eighteen years, this child was with you most of the time. You knew what he ate, what school work he did (or did not) accomplish, who his friends were, and where he was. Suddenly, you are no longer privy to any of that day-to-day intimacy. Feeling like an outsider to your child’s world is extremely foreign and uncomfortable, but something to be expected in this new phase of life.
At some point, you may receive some homesick “I don’t want to stay here anymore” calls. Let your son or daughter vent and be the listening ear and moral support they need. Resist the urge to fix the problem by calling the college, the professor, or the roommate (or the roommate’s parents!). Help the student to think through ways he can solve the problem. What resources may be available on campus? Is there a residence adviser who can help work out issues with a roommate? By encouraging your child to figure out a solution using you as a sounding board, you are empowering him to find a new problem-solving skill. You are also working on your new parenting role of counselor and adviser.
As you continue to parent the new college student, clarify your expectations and desires for the new relationship. Before he left for school, you had (I hope) conversations about finances, drinking, driving, drugs, and a host of other hot button items. But you may not have clearly stated your expectations in other areas such as the minimum amount of communication you would like. Do you want weekly phone calls? Daily texts? What are your hopes and expectations for holidays? Don’t assume, especially after the freshman year, that your son or daughter will spend all breaks, including Christmas vacation and summers at home. Be explicit when stating your expectations and desires, and plan to make holidays happen. While talking about what you want, be open to negotiating resolutions that work for both of you, but don’t expect perfection from them; they will have many distractions. However, communicating and negotiating will help your student—and you—to find a new level of self-reliance and independence.
The transition to college is rough for students and parents, and no one else will know quite what it’s like when your baby boy or girl leaves home. One very beneficial way that we found for keeping up with one of our sons was to volunteer to proofread papers for him. We are grateful that he took us up on this, not because he needed our help so much—he was already a good writer—but because it helped us stay connected with ideas and concepts he was thinking about and being taught. Now in grad school, he still occasionally sends us assignments. It’s a joy to see him grow.
One of my favorite quotations is: “Life takes you to unexpected places; love brings you home.” Be assured that sending a child to college is a pivotal point in the parent-child dynamic beyond which neither life will be quite the same again. You didn’t know it would come so soon. It may hurt when they talk about their college as home, but they are not truly leaving you or deserting you. They are becoming the independent people you have always said you were raising them to become. And when you come out the other side with them as young adults who still want to hang out with you and ask your advice (even if they don’t need it), you couldn’t ask for anything better for them or for you.