The first few days after we dropped our older daughter off at college were rough. I remember wandering around the house aimlessly and without purpose. It was uncharacteristically quiet and empty after the previous, hectic weeks leading up to move-in. I didn’t even recognize my clean dining room where all her stuff had been stacked, not to mention my husband and younger daughter, who admittedly had taken a backseat to my attention since early July. Of the previous year.
The first time the three of us went out to dinner was sobering, despite the extra glass of wine I ordered. We were a party of three instead of four, and I didn’t like it. I valiantly attempted to fill the hole she left with things like new shoes, ice cream, mindless movies, mindless books, more new shoes, and perhaps the oddest puzzle piece of all, an adorable dwarf hamster (don’t ask). Although I didn’t cry one tear after the drop off tsunami and was able to go in and out of her room on a daily basis without incident, I felt heavy, like there was a weight I couldn’t shake no matter how many cute new pairs of boots — or tiny rodents — I bought.
Every fall when I listen to friends experiencing the same weight, I relive it all over again. Dumbledore the hamster may have gone on to the squeaky wheel in the sky, but four years later I can still remember what it all felt like, and with time can now offer some advice that comes with a bit of clarity. So if you’re in my shoes — which as you now know I have too many of — here’s a list of things not to do in the days immediately after saying goodbye.
Don’t go down the rabbit hole: You know what I mean — old photo albums or home movies that you start sifting through one Friday night and emerge bleary-eyed and with a heartache hangover from late Sunday night. Memories that, in your current state, are dangerous territory because they become so inflated that you almost forget how often you longed for a house as empty as the one you’re sitting in. The only photos you’re allowed to look at for at least three months are of food items. Food items you want someone else to make for you.
Don’t isolate yourself: Whether it’s with friends IRL, new e-friends via the Grown & Flown Parents Facebook page or your child’s school’s Facebook page (most colleges have these, check it out), sharing conversation, questions, and yeah, even admitting you’ve spent the past few days surrounded by photo albums and empty pints of Ben & Jerry’s is a great way to feel connected and know you’re not alone.
Don’t stay home and wallow: Throw on a bit of makeup (a green stick will disguise the red, puffy eyes, BTW), blow out your hair, and get out of the house and away from the emptiness … and the still-messy bedroom with the beloved stuffed animals who are judging you for getting left behind. If the car happens to drive itself to DSW or Nordstrom, you might as well see what they have. No need to waste a perfectly good blow out.
If you’re able to, take a long weekend trip soon after drop-off (somewhere you never went with your kids, because memories make you cry, obviously). Or take a staycation and explore parts of your own city you always meant to, but didn’t because of that insufferable teenager who ate up all of your time. Either way, making new memories will help you realize there is life after this heartache. And by life I mean freedom.
Don’t drown your sorrows in wine: Add in a little shot of whisky occasionally.
Don’t neglect yourself: You know, you. Have you met her? She’s been kind of busy for the past 18 years, but I hear she’s pretty awesome. This is a good time to get reacquainted. Pick up an old hobby! Learn a new one! Paint your nails, get sassy highlights, try out new recipes, go for a run, or spend all day in bed (maybe even with your husband … remember him?) — whatever you do, treat yourself! You’ve earned it!
Don’t let your college kid know how sad you are: Like you’ve done for the past 18 years, you lie. Nothing will make them feel worse than knowing mom is crying Cabernet flavored tears every night while sitting in their dark bedroom holding their tattered blanky and listening to Cats In The Cradle on repeat. I mean, or something like that. Seriously, your college kid is going through enough of his or her own complicated feelings of separation. Don’t add in guilt, no matter how much that’s your thing.
But having said that,
Don’t ignore your feelings: You’ve earned them, and they’re valid, no matter how many people might tell you otherwise. Sure, some people send their kid off to college and carry on easily, and that’s wonderful. For them. Some people are hit harder, and that’s okay, too. Experience this monumental shift in your life however you need to. Cry the ugly tears, eat all the tubes of cookie dough, vent to your patient friends, go easy on the wine and whisky and harder on the new shoes and handbags.
But trust me on this: whatever you do, stay away from PetSmart.
Perhaps you’re one of the ones who will instantly adapt to the emptiness and will be able to move on without much fanfare (and by fanfare I mean wine). Good for you! While we’re super happy for you, please don’t be insulted if we don’t want to hang with you right away. It’s our pity party and we’ll cry if we want to, thankyouverymuch.