Dear Parent Sending Your Firstborn Off To College

Dear Parent Sending Your Firstborn Off To College,

I recognize you.

I see you lying awake long after everyone else in your house is asleep because that’s when the panic grips you the tightest.

I hear the speeches you give yourself that contain phrases like, “it seems like just yesterday,” “how is this possible?” and “nope, never gonna happen.”

Teen daughter

When Your Firstborn Goes to College

I see the secret calendar you are keeping that has all the possible dates throughout the year penciled in—in Sharpie—of when you’ll potentially get to see your son or daughter.

I can sense the mental countdown you’re keeping of how many more nights you get to say goodnight in person…that you started back in March.

I can feel every hug that you hold for an extra beat…just because you still can.

You can try to hide behind the false smiles and phony attitude, but I recognize you, because a year ago, I was you.

A year ago my older daughter was weeks away from flying the nest, and I was a complete contradiction of feelings. My brain was all set. I’d read all the articles I was supposed to read and had checked off all the suggested tasks like setting up a credit union account and loading meal card balances and finding the most effective pepper spray key chain in the entire world.

But some of the advice these articles gave about how to prepare my heart? I couldn’t buy into it, or perhaps more truthfully, I didn’t want to buy into it. And I bet you can’t…and don’t…either.

You’ve heard them all, I imagine. Things to do and things not to do to numb the pain of having an entire chunk of your heart ripped out. Ways to ease the transition of the “before” to the “after,” you know, the life before that you want to keep the same and the life after you have no interest in accepting.

I don’t discount the intention and the value in the following pieces of advice, I just know from experience that they are ridiculous.

Don’t wallow in sadness in the weeks leading up to drop-off; leave the tears for after your child leaves.

Whoever thinks this advice is realistic is clearly delusional. Everything—and I mean everything—that takes place in the weeks leading up to your child leaving home is tinged with a gray cloud that you can’t control, much less make disappear.

Dinner at a favorite restaurant? You’re calculating how long it will be until you all eat there again. Family movie night? You’re remembering the very first movie you all watched together. Even Target runs become depressing as you imagine buying less toilet paper and Cap’n Crunch in the coming months (and when Target runs become depressing you might as well just throw in the towel).

Sure, it’s important to enjoy all the moments—and you do—but there’s little chance you go more than a few hours without something triggering the realization that these moments as you’ve known them are about to end, and an even smaller chance you can stop it.

Be positive and enthusiastic so your child doesn’t feel your anxiety.

No question this is sage advice. And I was a pro at it. I smiled when I talked about college and said many encouraging things that sounded perfect but sometimes tasted foul coming out of my mouth. I shopped and planned and hypothesized happily about the coming months at college, but it was hard not to crack a little bit from time to time.

Did I make jokes to compensate for my apprehension by telling my daughter we were going to turn her room into the wrapping paper room I’d always dreamed of? Guilty. Did I say—on more than one occasion—that I’d be existing on Xanax, pop-tarts, and the salt from my tears until Christmas? Maybe.

And even though those moments of weakness were few and I spent most of the conversations with my daughter spewing sunshine and optimism, I’m sure a little bit of my own fears about the imminent changes were inadvertently passed along. But I figured I was doing her a favor. I mean, changing my well-established behavior on the eve of such a monumental event would’ve just been senseless cruelty.

It’s a tricky game, isn’t it? Juggling the positivity and enthusiasm with the near constant apprehension. If you think about it, it’s something you’ve been doing one way or another for 18 years, so give yourself a break if you drop one of the balls in the final hour.

Make the goodbye quick.

Quite possibly the most hated piece of advice, because hearing it will remind you that the goodbye will, indeed, happen, which doesn’t help your constant state of denial. Quick or slow, it will still be a goodbye, and it will still suck.

Don’t plan to contact your child immediately after move in. Let them be the first to reach out to you.

As if.

Listen, despite all the well-intentioned advice that you are most likely finding worthless trying to follow in reality, I’m here to tell you that you will, astonishingly, survive.

Is it because you’ve spent what seems simultaneously like a lifetime as well as the blink of an eye making sure your child is ready for this extraordinary milestone and your joy will eventually trump all the anxiety and uncertainty? Sure, but more than that because there really isn’t an alternative. Besides, you’ll be so completely exhausted emotionally from the year leading up to this moment that you’ll be surprisingly relieved to get to the other side.

So go ahead.

Cry. Worry. Panic.

I certainly won’t stop you.

My advice? Feel this ending any way you need to. Because only then will you be ready to embrace all the exciting beginnings that I can promise are coming your way.

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About Michelle Newman

Michelle Newman spent 23 years as a stay at home mom to two daughters and most of the past seven writing about them. Even though they’re both now grown and flown, she’s learning that life in an empty nest is still full and the material just keeps coming. She tells stories on her blog,youremyfavoritetoday.com 

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