These are the weeks when parents drop off their kids at college and emotions are high. A friend of mine once walked her college freshman up to the security line at the airport to say goodbye. My friend was crying so much and making such a scene that a TSA agent asked if she needed medical attention. I wasn’t surprised that she was so emotional; it’s gutting to send your kid to school far away. I was surprised that she got out of the car in the first place. I feel like I should have warned her: curbside drop-off is the best way to go.
As someone with a senior who attends college twelve hours away, here are a few things I wish I’d known when he started his freshman year:
1. Make a plan for when you will see them again— before they leave. “See you in October” feels joyful to say at the airport curb. Three months is the longest I’ve gone without seeing my son and I didn’t love it; two months feels reasonable. Save up your frequent flier miles and budget for rental cars and hotel rooms. Visiting your college kid might mean fewer vacations, but four years will fly by and you’ll want to explore their new life and town.
2. When you visit, ask to meet their friends. Take their roommates out for a meal. Cheer for their college’s sports teams. Tell them how proud you are of them for taking this leap. If they let you meet the people they are dating, be thankful and find several kind things to say about their new person. In other words, look for the good and sing your kid’s praises.
3. Don’t expect them home for fall break or spring break. You’ll still get winter holidays and maybe a little summer, but not all of summer. I could be wrong and your kid could be home every chance they get; then, you’ll be pleasantly surprised! It just helps me to not expect them and to remind myself that it’s actually something to celebrate: that they’ve made good friends to go on trips with. They have found their people.
4. When they are home, they might not be their best selves. Most college kids drag in exhausted from exams or when they are sick or heartbroken. That’s okay—parents are good at providing respite. It’s good to warn younger siblings that the returning travelers will need a minute. A friend told me that her much younger son would stand at the window, waiting for his older sister to arrive from college. She’d show up several hours late, still wearing last night’s eyeliner and need to sleep for two days. It’s best if everyone’s expectations are taken down a notch.
5. You will miss them, but that’s different than grieving them. I learned this from my therapist who commented that I’d make the healthy shift from grieving to missing way before I realized that was what was happening. Your kid is away at college; they haven’t died. Missing makes sense—try to keep it in that zone.
6. Time really helps. It took until my son’s junior year for me to not feel gutted by his leaving. I needed some practice at releasing him. I also needed to create a bigger life for myself. I needed to have more fun things planned than watching him in musicals . It’s easier to release them to their new communities when you’ve intentionally developed your own.
7. Once they start renting apartments or houses, they will refer to that place as “home.” As in, “When I get home, I’m going to make a Trader Joe’s run” or “I left my winter coat at home.” It will sting a bit, the first time you realize they aren’t talking about your house. Your family will always be their home in an emotional sense, but they have basically moved out for good. When they come back to your house, it’s to visit. They are building their adult lives and that is good and right.
The first time I left my son after visiting him in Michigan, I couldn’t stop crying in the Detroit airport. I was so undone that a man in a suit brought me napkins. I don’t cry at the airport anymore when I’m flying back to Atlanta. I miss my kid, but I know he’s where he should be. And there’s a lot of good stuff waiting for me at home.