I’m a Divorced Dad and Here’s Why College Drop Off Feels Normal

There is a lot of discussion about the emotional toll of newly adult children leaving the home on the parents they are leaving behind. Gone are messy rooms, packed schedules, and late-night talks — instead, an empty place at the table and an eerily quiet house.

How will you fill the void? How will you know their children are OK when they’re no longer under your roof?

dad and daughter hugging
My daughters and I found our groove over time after their mom and I divorced. (Twenty20 @brightideasfl)

For divorced parents, the process of ‘letting go’ can be different

For the divorced parent who has been on the shorter side of a parenting plan, the experience is a bit different. These experiences came years ago and under much different and sadder circumstances. To quote Roman Roy from Succession, I have “pre-grieved.”

I have already had my time with my children greatly reduced. I have already lost touch with their day-to-day routines, as I did not want to turn their limited time with me into interrogation sessions. There are already empty places at my dinner table most evenings. I do not tell them good night or see them off to school most mornings.

I drove a moving van away from the family home for the last time years ago

Instead of dropping my adult child off at a lush college campus, we had spent months choosing together and dreaming about, I drove a moving van away from our family home to an apartment across town after dropping them off at the bus stop to middle school for the last time.

At that time, I did not have an army of well-wishers commiserating over how difficult this must be for me. Nobody offered me hugs or went out for drinks to soften the blow of losing time with my daughters. Instead, I returned to my empty apartment almost every night to a mound of legal work (and bills).

The ensuing years on an every-other-weekend schedule were a twilight zone of parenting and something I had never prepared myself for or imagined I would ever be doing. I had to shift from a full-time parent and husband to this new role. Instead of my daughters simply being in the house with me, our relationship would be governed by a parenting plan and child support schedule.

I had many of the responsibilities of parenting but not much time with my daughters

It is an odd state — I had many parenting responsibilities, particularly the financial ones, but much less time with my daughters. I maintained a home suitable for my daughters, even though they only spent about 20% of their time there.

As time went on, we found our groove in what this relationship looked like. My daughters got to see who I was outside the confines of a failing marriage. We made memories of school and family activities and developed rituals for our limited time together. But it still wasn’t the same. It was still “off” from what I had imagined fatherhood would be like and what most of my cohort of parents were experiencing.

My daughters’ leaving for college makes my parental role more ‘typical’ again

As my daughters head to college, it feels more like a restoration of my proper role than a loss. No longer will our relationship be mediated through the courts or their mother. Legally mandated support is ending in favor of more fluid, typical arrangements.

I can just be a Dad, not an agent of the courts. If my daughters need something from me, they can ask for it, and we can talk about it as other parents and children do. They are welcome in my home whenever they wish, not according to the dictates of a parenting plan. We get to determine what our relationship looks like.

I feel like I am rejoining the mainstream and returning to a model of parenting I had always envisioned participating in and that my peers are participating in after a lengthy sojourn in the desert.

I am again emotionally out of sync with my fellow parents

Which again puts me emotionally out of phase with most of my cohort of parents at this stage. While many launching parents are mourning the end of their children’s time at home, I am eagerly anticipating this next phase of my life.

This may all change when reality comes in. Roman Roy demonstrated that “pre-grieving” really isn’t a thing. I am sure I will feel a void those first few weekends not filled with our rituals and school activities when the spare bedroom is empty 100% of the time rather than 80%.

But for now, I am enjoying returning to a time when I can be the dad I imagined I would be.

More Great Reading:

It’s the Summer Before College, and We’re All Dealing Differently

About John McGuinness

John McGuinness is a father of two college age daughters. He works as a software engineer and lives in the suburbs of Seattle, WA. He enjoys playing and listening to music, riding his bike, and fundraising activities for Cystic Fibrosis, which impacts his younger daughter.

Read more posts by John

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