This Summer, Dorm Room Shopping Is My Love Language

I’ve somehow found myself in a Facebook group called “Dorm Room Mamas.” It’s exactly what you think it is. Next thing I knew, I was clicking links and bookmarking with abandon: shower caddies, rugs, fans, mattress toppers, outlet strips, desk lamps, even the specific blue moving bags that everyone already seemed to know about. 

Come August, my son will be eight hours away from home. He has no idea I’m researching the best laundry hampers. He doesn’t even want me to go into his room at home. Maybe that’s why I’m searching for the perfect items to send him off. There’s so little he’ll let me do anymore. There’s so little time left for me to do it.

I am thrilled to be able to dorm shop for my off-to-collge son. (Shutterstock michaeljung)

Once upon a time I knew how to shop for my kids

Before my teenagers started passing me in height, before I became chronically uncool, I knew exactly how to shop for my kids. One spring, I bought dresses for my little girls while I was out shopping without them. For one daughter, I got a bright tropical floral print. For the other, I chose a crisply tailored blue-and-white dress. They were perfect, exactly the right sizes, and each girl was overjoyed with my choice for her. 

During a recent round of decluttering, I found a cardboard box in the guest room closet. In it were several years of old lists of what we’d bought the kids for Christmas. When our oldest was a toddler and preschooler, there was a flurry of Thomas the Tank Engine items, followed by a lot of Minecraft, Pokemon, and Lego. So much Lego. 

Shopping is one of the last things we can do for our adult children

Back then, we knew exactly what would thrill our little boy, who is now 18 and increasingly hard to know in the same way. What does he want for his birthday? Usually cash, gift cards, and other boring things that say, “I know myself better than you know me.” I think he sometimes wishes we could surprise him with something that he’d love. We wish that, too, but we seem to have lost our touch.

Shopping isn’t the only way we can show hands-on care for our kids, but it’s one of the last to go. My son’s new college wants his immunization records. Since he’s 18, all I can do is remind him to call his pediatrician and request them.

He does his own schoolwork (or, sometimes, he doesn’t). He does his own laundry (or, sometimes, he doesn’t). He eats with us when he’s here, but he is also making his own meals before or after work, or he’s going out with friends. He drives without us, socializes without us, keeps himself safe without us. 

This is all exactly how it should be. And yet, somehow, it seems a little sudden. Wasn’t he just the kid who wanted to always be on our laps? 

We knew our kids so well when they were little

When they were little, caring for my children used to be intensely physical, intensely hands-on. The diapers, the night terrors, the crying, the cleaning, the bathing, the feeding, the clinging, the constant need to supervise. The relentless avalanche of need. 

We were often exhausted. But, boy, did we know those kids. Every freckle, every hangnail. I could instantly tell whose hand had scribbled a drawing. My mind was a catalog of who liked avocados, who would only wear “soft pants” and who was going to cry about taking their antibiotics. 

As my kids have taken on more responsibility for themselves, I’m grateful for the space it’s given me. But as they’ve taken over caring for most of their own needs, they’ve also quietly carried away my unthinking, comprehensive knowledge of them. They are not mine anymore. They are their own. It’s wonderful. It’s heart-panging. 

As they prepare to leave we grasp for connection

As they get ready to really leave us, we can find ourselves grasping for connection. What’s our role now? Absolutely, it’s to help them launch, to selflessly make them feel loved while we do it. But, just maybe, there’s also a part of us that’s hoping that when they see that deeply researched three-drawer organizer, they’ll remember to answer our texts.

When I was the editor of a parenting magazine, our gift-giving guides for teens were always one of our most popular features. We’re all yearning to know our big kids well enough again to know what will make them light up, or at least for them to know that we understand them. As they move farther and farther away, getting the right gift feels like a statement that we know their young adult selves, that we are navigating this transition well, that we accept and support who they are becoming.

Parents and adult kids continue to have strong relationships these days

I’m hopeful about staying connected with our kids as they are becoming young adults. A recent Pew Research study found that parents and their young adult kids tend to be close and happy with their relationship with each other. Yes, there’s still financial support happening – the dorm shopping will not be the end of it, apparently – but notable emotional closeness, too.

The study indicates that parents and adult kids may have a tighter relationship these days than in past decades – in other words, when we parents were young adults. I can see a glimpse of it in our family jokes and text threads and the way that dinners, when we’re lucky enough to have them together, stretch out at a leisurely pace.

Usually, no one’s ready to leave the table. Someone is leaving soon, though. My son will turn 19 in September, his first birthday away from home. I have no idea what to get him. That’s for another day, though. For now, I’ll be clicking “check out now” on a cart filled with Twin XL sheets and shower shoes.

More Great Reading:

How to Decorate a Guy’s Dorm Room: 20 Simple and Easy Ideas (2024)

About Sharon Holbrook

Sharon Holbrook is a writer whose work has been published in The New York Times, Washington Post, and many other national and regional publications. She lives with her family near Cleveland, Ohio. Find her here.

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