Last year after dropping my firstborn off at college, I wrote an article describing what now seems like a total freak-show with me starring in the central role. I sobbed for three hours on the ride home, became extremely nauseated due to my migraine or perhaps because of it, and couldn’t get the stupid words from “Sunrise, Sunset” out of my damn head. As we drove off literally at sunset, it was more like a scene out of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Fast-forward one year: We dropped my son off last week and I barely shed a tear. As a sophomore, he opted to move off campus and we spent lots of time shopping for his new apartment, making lists, and coordinating with his roommates. On move-in day, we focused on setting up while not passing out from the extreme heat, and ignoring the dirt left behind by the former tenants. (Well, maybe not ignoring entirely. I did unleash a full bottle of disinfectant all over that place and preached about the use of toilet bowl cleaner to three disinterested boys.) I even mustered a tiny satisfactory evil streak, finding justice in the lack of air conditioning, washing machine, dryer, and dishwasher. He’s going to have a whole new appreciation for life under my roof when he comes home!
Within days of drop-off, I received the following note from a reader who saw my article from last year:
Erris, I just came across your blog entry regarding dropping off your first child at college. For the last four days, I’ve been looking for some kind of comfort via the Internet, as I just took my first son to college, and your words were the most comforting to me. I feel like I’m being swallowed into a hole, kind of mourning the loss of the family, as I knew it, and the loss of my being a mother to small children. I totally did not expect this ton of bricks to fall on me. Do you recall, how long was it before you felt somewhat normal again? It’s been 4 days for me and I spend most of them crying. When does this sadness go away?
The truth is, there is no magic answer, but time and perspective are great natural healers. Here are five things that made it easier for me the first time around:
1. Own your feelings. It’s OK to feel sad and scared, but don’t let your kid see you break down. When it was time to say goodbye, I realized that my son may be just as scared as I was, even if he wasn’t showing it, so I did my best not to sob until I was in the car. Dark sunglasses definitely helped mask my red eyes. Talking to other parents also helped, and I purposely avoided the ones who I knew would wind me up. It helps to commiserate with a friend who’s doing a little better than you. There’s no pride here, people. We just have to get through this together.
2. Plan your first visit ahead of drop-off. Plan your first visit to college or your kid’s first visit home ahead of time, so that when you leave you know exactly when you’re seeing each other next. This definitely helped soften the blow, and when we parted, my son reminded me (and perhaps himself?) that we’d be seeing each other in a few weeks.
3. Stay busy. I can’t stress this point enough. While I couldn’t control much of my new normal, I was in control of my own schedule, and immersing myself in work projects and volunteering helped fill the void. I accepted lunch invitations with friends, even when I felt like crawling into the fetal position, and forced myself to put on a brave face. When you can’t make it, fake it. It works.
4. Enjoy the ride. Try to get swept up in your kid’s new adventure. More than anything else, my son’s happiness was contagious and when he made time to actually talk rather than text us (finally), the excitement in his voice made everything better. While he wasn’t at home every day any more, there were so many new firsts to experience through his stories, and he was very much still a part of our daily life—just in a different way.
5. Give yourself a guilt trip. This may sound controversial, but it worked for me. How could I not be happy for my kid? As much as his departure felt as though it was all about me, it was so obviously not. I still have a teenage daughter at home, who also misses her brother. What kind of message would I be sending if I wallowed in my misery of missing him all day?
Your kid will be home for a long weekend or winter break before you know it, and adjusting to the times he’s back home will be your next challenge. My friends with older kids have advised me to embrace this new time in my life and enjoy the ride rather than fight it every step of the way. While easier said than done, this truly helped me find my way.