I wrote this article two weeks after I dropped my oldest child at a huge university thousands of miles away from home. For me, it was not a great two weeks.
It has since been nearly 6 years. While my child is fully adulting, with a job and life on her own in a different city than me, this time of year always brings reminders.
My social media feed is flooded with sad, nostalgic friends. One just posted beautiful photos from a family vacation in Sweden and said it was the last stop before the first college move-in for her daughter. Her comment: "I'm pretty weepy." Another who is sending off her youngest of three children texted me saying, "There will be a void. I know she will be happy but it's going to be hard going up to her bedroom."
All such valid feelings that I still relate to, even as my youngest heads off for his senior year of college.
When I dropped off my first child, it reminded me of the start of my baby girl's life. After those first chaotic, emotional few weeks, I called my college best friend, who had a baby 4 months earlier, and said, “Why did you not tell me about all the crazy post-birth trauma I would experience?” And she said: “Because you would not have believed me.”
Here are things I wish I had known about the weeks following college drop-off. Of course, all parent-child relationships are different, as are all college atmospheres. But I would not have believed these things to be true a month before that first big goodbye.
1. The actual drop-off was not that emotional. There are just so many things TO DO. My daughter’s college is two plane flights away, so there were logistics to deal with. Mailing boxes. Packing suitcases. Spending hundreds of dollars at Bed Bath & Beyond for things like bedbug mattress protectors and shower shoes. By the time you get to your kid’s actual dorm, you are just so thankful other students are there to help cart all those things up to the 19th floor of the freshmen tower. You sweat, you figure out how those darn Command strips work on cinder block walls, you get hangry, you finally get everything moved in, and maybe do one more run to Target (for snacks). When you finally leave, you are all exhausted and pretty much just want to hug and hit the road.
2. It hits you when you get home, back to reality. I was not prepared for the feeling of being back home, where her bedroom, with all the Polaroids on the wall of her and her friends, is right next door to mine. The first morning, I went into her room and cleaned: changed the sheets, put away the pile of high school sweatshirts she decided not to take, and vacuumed. In her closet, I found a parting gift in the form of a hamper full of dirty laundry. A month ago, I would have been livid at the mess. Instead: "Yay! I can still do one more load of her laundry!" When I was done, I just shut the door. No need to face that emptiness every day.
3. The littlest things will make you miss them SO much. Besides having her general sweet presence around, these are things I miss. I miss her fighting with her younger brother. I miss the way she talks to the dog. I miss her shoes spread all over the garage floor, even though there are baskets right there to put them in. I miss her snacks. I went to the grocery store and saw pretzel rods and got teary, because there's no need to buy them anymore. I miss having high school soccer games to go to. I miss hearing her coming up the stairs after we are in bed, with her late-night nosh of crunchy things. I miss cooking in the kitchen and rolling my eyes as she sits nearby watching the Kardashians on TV.
4. You will cry at the most unexpected times. I did not shed an avalanche of tears until day 10. I was walking the dog when I saw a good friend of my daughter's drive by. She stopped to talk and I was so excited! And then she drove away and I got wistful. I miss her friends so much! So many years of girlfriend laughter. I went to the grocery store later that day and saw a friend who asked how my daughter was doing at college. I burst into tears, right in the middle of Safeway. Beware of day 10!
5. The lack of communication with your child will slay you. On a good day, she responds to texts with a monosyllabic response. ("How was your first day of classes?" "Good!") On a great day, she calls and my husband and I rush to the phone, put it on speaker, and hover over it, relishing every detail. (My own parents still do this when I call them. Oh, how I finally get it! They just want to hear our voices!) And then, there are so many days when you get nothing, know nothing. After 18 years of knowing pretty much everything, this is the toughest thing.
6. You will have moments of joy. She is in a new environment in a different state. She is excited about the classes she's taking. She is living independently. She already did a few loads of laundry. She hasn't complained of being homesick. We did it! Despite my feeling of loss, this is the mantra I keep repeating.
(Editor’s note: The following item was added nearly a year after the original story was published.)
7. They will survive that first year away … and so will you! It’s college move-in time, a year later. And when I recall the raw emotions I felt after dropping my daughter off for year one, I am amazed. For myself, amazed that after a lovely summer with our girl home making our family unit whole again, we are ready to send her back. No more walking by her room, with the mile-high piles of clothing! No more sibling fights over who gets the extra car! No more waiting up for her to come home from a late night out!
For my college girl, I am amazed at how that first year of separation — which included hard times, loneliness, growth, challenges and learning to enjoy the highs yet persist through the lows — has transformed her into quite a fine young adult.
With a year under her belt, she is returning to campus confident and excited. There is no more freshman dorm to contend with, no awkward roommate situation. She knows the location of all her classes, and has even devised a schedule that gives her Fridays off! She has declared a major. And she has friends who she can't wait to reunite with — despite the fact they have Snapchatted all summer. All of these reasons make sending her back so much easier. There is peace in knowing she is going to be OK. It’s like when you have a baby the second time around you know, from experience, that you really can’t break them. Everything is going to be fine.
For those of you sending a child to their first year of college, this is the biggest lie you will hear from parents of other first-year college kids: “My [son or daughter] is THRIVING.” Don’t let this stress you out because you are worried about your own kid. Every college student spends their first year of college adjusting … to a new environment, new people, new challenges. No one does it perfectly right away, they just don’t. (No matter what photos on Instagram suggest.) As a parent, it’s about adjusting to not really knowing just how well your child is adjusting. The not knowing is the hard part.
But, trust me, a year from now they will be ready, and so will you. Ready for round two.
This story was originally published August 31, 2017 and has been updated.