My daughter, an only child, is two years away from heading off to college, and already I find myself dreading the day she spreads her bold, witty, kick-ass-and-take-no-prisoners wings and leaves.
Realistically, I know it’s folly to spend the next two years fixated on what’s to come, instead of relishing every precious moment I have today. A few months ago my dread grew to the point where I recognized I needed to do something about it.
My daughter is my only child, and we’re very close – as in Lorelai and Rory Gilmore close. I was a single parent for many years, and for a long time it was just her and me. We enjoy hanging out together, she’s nice enough to include me in occasional outings with her friends, and she still sometimes grabs and holds onto my hand (even out in public!). At the same time, she’s strong and independent, and she’s been researching college websites since she was 12. I know she’ll get homesick and will miss me terribly, but she’ll be OK.
And while I don’t want to play the game of “I’m suffering more than you,” I do think it’s harder for parents of only children when they leave the nest. There is no incremental leaving with an older child, no dipping our toe into the choppy waters of empty nest syndrome, and no remaining child at home to hug tightly. Our only child is simply gone.
Still, I’m determined to grab these upcoming two years by the throat, hoist myself off my petard of self-pity and dread, and figure out how to manage the upcoming college years. I’m a person of action … I needed a game plan.
Who better to turn to than friends who have sent their little bird off into the wilderness – and survived quite well – to get tips and strategies? I sent out a Facebook query seeking advice, emailed specific friends whom I knew would provide good tips, and had in-person conversations whenever possible.
I was really struck by the depth and breadth of the thoughtful advice I received. People took a lot of time to compile their list of advice and experiences. My former boss (one of the busiest people I know) sent me a detailed, raw, honest list of 10 things that did, and didn’t, work when her son left for college. She compiled this list on her first day back in the office from vacation, which I knew meant she had hundreds of emails more important than mine to answer. But yet, she took the time … as did many others. For that, I am eternally grateful.
Here, then, is a compilation of the most useful tips I received from friends and acquaintances:
1. Expect to be sad and to wallow, especially the first semester.
“Ride the wave of sadness … it lasts only a short time. I deeply felt the loss after they left, but be reassured that it fades,” said Candy. The fall semester of freshman year was the hardest, said Laurie, also the parent of an only child. “We missed the busy-ness – the school activities, the gaggles of giggly girls, the things we’d do as a family, and the wonderful everyday closeness and laughs. A little too late it dawned on us, ‘Uh oh, maybe we should have had more than one kid!’”
2. Take some time the first semester to just think (not act).
Several friends talked about the importance of getting involved in new activities, volunteering, seeing friends more, taking on new work assignments, and reconnecting with their spouse or partner – all of which sound like great strategies. However, Marcia offered some sage advice: “There’s a lot of emotion involved and so diving into hobbies, fitness, sports, the arts, etc., may distract and exhaust you.” Instead, use the first semester to breathe, contemplate and figure out next steps for yourself. “Expect this to take time. Give yourself time to wallow in some sadness when you pass the empty room.”
3. Figure out some short-term activities.
So AFTER your period of wallowing has lost its allure, it’s time to compile some short-term strategies about how to occupy your time. Shaula says she started volunteering regularly and set up nights out with girlfriends who also had empty nests. Linda and Jeff treated themselves to regular date nights and season tickets at their local community theater. “We realized we could plan dinners with our friends and not have to work around our daughter’s schedule,” said Paula. My brother-in-law Jim said he “took on challenging work assignments and had no guilt about being away on travel assignments.” During those first few months of feeling aimless and unfocused, Laurie began creating a list of three small things she wanted to accomplish each day.
4. Figure out some long-term goals for yourself.
Kelli decided higher education would become a focus. “I planned for a big change in my life, knowing the empty nest would be difficult. So I went back to school and got a master’s degree.” Although Sue didn’t have much trouble adjusting to her son at college – he’s fairly independent, spends half his time at his dad’s house anyway, and goes to school nearby – she wanted to establish some long-term plans for her new life. She decided to provide respite foster care to teens through Boys and Girls Aid. “The need for foster parents is huge, and it makes such a big difference,” she said.
5. Make trips to see them.
Laurie and Marcia both recommended making trips to see your kids if they’re in college, especially parents’ weekend their freshman year. “After that first year, parents’ weekend is only for you,” said Marcia. “Your kid will want you to (a) buy them things, (b) take them out to eat, or (c) leave them alone.”
Candy said she visited and talked with her two daughters several times a week, and Mary said FaceTime really helped her make the transition. Getting quick texts from your child is a great way to stay in touch without burdening them with the expectation of a weekly phone call. On a side note, this is a far cry back from the Mesozoic Era when I was in college and living in my first apartment. There were no cell phones and often no answering machines. I remember taking my phone off the hook (no one under age 40 will know what that means) for WEEKS at a time when I was busy studying and didn’t want to be bothered. In hindsight, I don’t know how my parents stood it.
I still remember all the amazing care packages my mom sent my sister and me in college. Apparently, this remains true today. College students may not have time to talk to you, but nothing says love from home like a well thought out care package. More importantly, it’s a way for you to remain connected and show you’re thinking about them. “They miss you too, even if they don’t admit it,” said Paula. “Little items like hair ties, candy, sticky notes, new pens and always socks … can make their day when the care package arrives.”
8. Help them move in the first time … but don’t be the human U-Haul after that.
This is something I hadn’t thought of. We’re so focused on getting our kids moved into the dorm as freshmen that we forget there are many slogging, miserable moves in their near future. Just say no to being your kids’ unofficial movers after freshman year, advised Marcia. “They’ll figure out how to move out, store things and when to move in. The next time you should help is when they graduate and leave.” In some ways this sounds harsh to me, but I know it will help them navigate the bumpy road of adulthood. Tough love, baby.
9. Be realistic about their visits home.
Don’t inflict too many family obligations on your visiting child, expect they will want to see their friends from high school (although this apparently often decreases after freshman year), and remember that they want to just relax in their old room and decompress from noisy roommates and stressful finals. Remind yourself that it’s a comfort just knowing they’re in your general orb and vice versa.
10. Recognize that short-term pain can evolve into long-term gain.
Jill said she and her daughter both became “more independent and adventurous” after her older daughter left for college. However, she adds that “it may be time for an additional puppy” when her younger daughter leaves home. “Let things flow naturally,” said Marcia. “Your relationships will be preserved and strengthened … and you will set the tone for your future as the parents of an adult child.” Mary said wisely, “I relish the fact that she is experiencing new people and places. Her happiness makes me happy.”
OK, now I have sage advice and a list. I’m ready to enjoy the next two years.
Lisa Godwin lives on 10 acres in the middle of a dark, rainy forest in Oregon with her husband, teenage daughter and two dogs. This dedicated urbanite now counts as her neighbors a bobcat, several packs of coyotes and an owl named Bobbie. Lisa works from home, is self-employed as a writer and editor, and specializes in writing about health care for her clients. She also writes personal essays, and her work has appeared in Blunt Moms, Oregon Home Magazine, Scary Mommy and XO Jane. You can reach her on Facebook.