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

It’s summer after high school graduation for my twins Sophia and Liv, and each family member of our four has complicated feelings about their imminent departure to (the same) college across the country. Both kids are undecided, which means instead of an academic goal to attach the journey to, we’re all focused on the lifestyle transition of leaving friends and empty nesting. The vibe is steady resignation with a soupçon of panic. (I turn away to hide my quivering lip when it starts up.)

First thing you should know: I’m projecting my own baggage here.  I can still feel the ache of my homesickness during my first few months of college. Sophia and Liv absorbed family lore all their lives: My parents dropped me off on a Tuesday, and I turned around for a visit home that Friday. “She stopped crying around Thanksgiving,” their grandma has shared often. If I had known myself better at that age, I probably would have chosen a smaller college instead of the massive university where I felt utterly lost. 

It’s natural to be reluctant to leave a happy home

But mostly, it’s a perfectly natural reluctance to leave a happy home and make new friends when they love the ones they have. I am also sensitive to their worry whether they’ll feel as uniquely — and safely — themselves there as they do here. 

It’s the summer before college, and mom is the CEO (chief emotions officer) (Photo credit: Liz Vaccariello)

We’re all trying to maintain brave faces. As CEO (chief emotions officer) of the family, I listen, observe and interpret. 

Sophia’s greatest skill is knowing how to frame situations so they cause her the least anxiety. How is she feeling about leaving for college? “I’m not thinking about it, honestly,” she told me in late June. “I’m just focusing on having a fun summer with my friends.” (She sure gets points for mindful living.)

A few weeks later, I overheard her say to some friends: “I’m not stressed about college.”

My daughters’ friends all worry about starting college

One friend worried she’d picked a school too close, another worried they were going too far, and a third wanted to major in business, but what if they decided to become a veterinarian instead? That’s when I heard my daughter repeat the advice of her godmother, a university professor whom we’d visited that spring: “Don’t sweat the decision too much because you can always transfer! Nothing is forever, and you’ll change a lot during these years. If the fit isn’t right, you can always move!”

Meanwhile, Sophia’s sibling, Liv, is leaving a girlfriend, an action sports scene they are thriving in, and a recently found friend group so perfect I thought, “They’ve found their people.” Their go-to answer to “Are you excited about college?” is “Excited is a strong word.” Liv gets points for candor and brevity, the soul of wit. 

Mom is also worried about what next year will look like

As for me, I’m marching conscientiously toward the move-in date, lip quivering as I make lists, book flights, and spend time in Parents of Class of 27 Facebook groups. The kids have put me in charge of dorm decor (“Just don’t make it pink,” Liv offered, not looking up from their phone), which kept me occupied for a while. And I wake at 4 am spiraling about a life skill I have three more weeks to teach them. “Yes, we went over tire-changing. They’ll be fine!” says my husband, Steve, who will always get points for optimism and being in denial.  

Usually, when I’d admit how the summer was flying, my heart was getting heavier, and the kids already felt like they were pulling away (which is, I am aware, as it should be), Steve would stick to some version of “It’s a natural evolution! They’ll be fine! We’ll be great!”

Then, late in the evening on Independence Day, after the fireworks were over and he’d swept away the ashes on our driveway from the sparklers he’d given the neighborhood kids because ours were out for senior beach week, he turned to me and admitted: “I just got really sad. Tonight it hit me that they will be gone, and things won’t be the same.”

That night I surprised myself by saying: “Yes, they will, and no, they won’t, and that’s a good and natural thing.” And I let my lip quiver right in front of him. 

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About Liz Vaccariello

Liz Vaccariello is an editor and writer based in the New York City area. She's worked in publishing for more than 30 years and had been editor-in-chief of Parents, Real Simple, Prevention, Reader’s Digest and People magazines. Learn more about Liz on her website and follow her on Instagram.

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