Why Each College Goodbye Is Uniquely Bittersweet

I’m up early this morning, anticipating what’s to come in the next few hours. As so many mothers do, I sit, still sleepy, in my quiet kitchen, sipping coffee and savoring a few moments of peaceful solitude.

youngest son back to school
Each leave-taking is bittersweet. (via Marybeth Bock)

My son is returning to college, again

Today my son heads back to his college town to begin his final semester of college. A fact that my brain is able to comprehend, but my heart is having difficulty accepting.

I close my eyes and can instantly and clearly see him crawling in the sand as a baby, clad in a turquoise swim diaper. Then climbing leafy, green trees as a rambunctious five-year-old. Next, walking up to the dusty plate to bat in a coach-pitch baseball game.

Weren’t we just doing the middle school walk-through last month?

Didn’t he just apply to college last week? It certainly feels like that this morning.

This will be his final semester

Today will be the eighth and final semester we say goodbye to him as a college student. And even though it feels routine by now, I will still shed a few tears. He is, and always will be, our baby. The child you will forever feel needs a little more protection or fortification. The one whose milestones resonate the deepest to a mother.

Each semester’s goodbye during a child’s college years is both essentially different, and the same.

The initial departure is monumental and gut-wrenching for so many of us. Various emotions swirl in our consciousness — pride, delight, excitement, and fear. We deliberately shift our focus to the tangible in order to push away the immeasurable. We make our lists and pack up bedding, cold medications, and shoe organizers, trying to delay that moment when we must look into an empty bedroom and feel a hole that has opened up inside of our chest. 

As the semesters pass by, every farewell is different. It is reflective of who you both are in that moment, and each time you and your child are different people. You’ve experienced gains and losses, many of them insignificant, but some of them life-altering. And our children change dramatically during their college years. There is a huge amount of growth and change, for these are the years when they morph into genuine adults, and your relationship with them is altered by that fact. 

Every visit and every leave-taking is different

Sometimes their visits back home during the winter or summer breaks are short, and you dread them packing up once again and departing. Those goodbyes may be particularly sad when you feel a tad cheated out of potential time spent together. Sometimes their visits back are lengthy, and there’s been friction or differences of opinions with other family members.

Those goodbyes may be met with relief, and possibly guilt or anger over the clashes that occurred. Sometimes you feel anxiety about them, or for them, when they are embarking upon big changes like studying abroad, having new roommates, starting a new job, or taking some exceedingly difficult classes.  

Each time they leave, you will feel less of a burden upon yourself for their happiness and comfort. The responsibility shifts a little each time, as they continue to mature and make choices that affect their futures. But even as those pragmatic shifts occur, the emotional ties remain, as we parents come to realize that our parenting truly never ends. Our deep love and concern persist, quite unlike any other relationship we will ever experience during our lifetime. That ironclad bond is rarely broken.

The last semester goodbye is perhaps the hardest

This is why the last semester goodbye is still felt so strongly. Perhaps there are even more of the bittersweet feelings than at any other sendoff before it. Particularly this year when we’ve had to witness our kids experience such a strange first semester.

They begin this fresh one with many unknowns still lingering. We wonder if they will get to have any kind of traditional graduation ceremonies or get back into classrooms with their fellow classmates and professors. We try not to dwell too long on what they’ve missed out on, but force ourselves to look ahead with optimism, while we continue to worry about their physical and mental health.

We know that what comes at the end of this semester is the end of an era. Some already have jobs lined up, or concrete plans for more school. Many will still be searching, applying, and putting themselves out there to be evaluated, scrutinized, and chosen. The “real” world awaits as they balance upon the precipice of adulthood, which can seem scary in any year, and looms exceptionally large this year. 

Part of me wishes my son was still small

A small part of me still wishes my son were five, climbing those trees, and would be snug in his bed down the hallway tonight, falling soundly asleep after I read him a few books. But the larger part of me stands proud and ready. Proud of all that he has accomplished and overcome during the last three and a half years. Of the challenges he’s faced and the connections, he’s made. Of the classes, he’s struggled with and of the wisdom he’s gained. Of what lies ahead during the next four months.

And with that, I’m ready to give him yet another long and fierce hug, before he drives away toward that official designation of college graduate and bona fide adult. And I’m ready to miss him once again and to hope and pray for his safety and protection. 

It’s never an easy goodbye, but it’s what we’ve become accustomed to during this stage, and it is exactly how it should be.

More to Read:

College Years are a Sweet Spot and I’m Not Ready for Them to End

About Marybeth Bock

Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two young adults and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor and freelance writer. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing - as long as iced coffee is involved. You can find her work on numerous websites and in two books. Find her on Facebook and Instagram

Read more posts by Marybeth

Don't miss out!
Want more like this? Get updates about parenting teens and young adults straight to your inbox.