Wimpy Mom’s Guide to Letting Go of College Bound Children

“I have berated myself for being a wimpy mom, the parent who cannot walk away without tears, the mother who misses her kids every day. I have given myself the stern talk about being overly attached to my sons and told myself a hundred times that it is not about me but them. I decided there must be something wrong/missing from me or my life if saying goodbye was this hard. I have wondered, endlessly, why it hurts so much when they go.”

Knowing My Sons a Little Less by Lisa Heffernan.

Me too, Lisa, me too.

I struggle within myself to manage the two strong pulls within me right now — the need to let go of my college-bound adult children, to be happy for them and grateful for their readiness to leave — with the deep, guttural, sharp abandonment-like pain I feel as I prepare to “release” my college freshman-bound son, and re-release my college junior-bound daughter.

College bound son and dad
My husband and son are leaving for college. (Julie Burton)


Why do you do this to yourself,” asked my son when he finally let me take him to lunch, during which I squeaked out the forbidden words, “I am going to miss you,” as I tried to contain the cascade of tears.

Does this make me a wimpy mom? Am I making this harder than it has to be? Can I chase away the memories of my son as a little boy that continue to appear in my mind as we slowly, painstakingly pack up his room?

Or shouldn’t I be used to my daughter’s absence since she will soon head back for her third year of college? And yet I feel a deep sense of loss, bordering on despair, as my daughter tells me this may be her last summer home.

Letting the kids go is brutal.

While it is an inevitable part of the parenting experience and contains large amounts of joy, the child’s leaving/mother-letting process is one of the most challenging processes I have experienced. While we get to practice as we raise our kids — releasing them to kindergarten, sleepovers, and overnight camps, it is hard to prepare for the mother lode of all exits — their departure for college — when home becomes a place they visit, not where they live.

Their pending exits loom everywhere the summer before they go. It feels like a slow yet erratic, peeling off of a Band-Aid. And sometimes, the peeling and pulling hurts so badly for both the parent and child that you want to rip off the Band-Aid in one fell swoop.

“I can’t wait to get out of here!”

“Let me get the door for you.”

And they mean it. And we mean it. Because we are supposed to, and because we have to. But the sadness and fear often get mixed up with anger and frustration. Anger is easier. But it only temporarily masks the pain.

Parents and their college-bound kids (especially the freshmen) often find themselves doing the “exit dance,” where both parties spin around the pending departure — sometimes gracefully, but often (well, certainly in my case) very clumsily. Parents tell themselves, “Don’t talk about it too much. Just pretend that everything is normal. Act strong. Don’t let them see you weak. Just keep dancing.”

And the college-bound child tells himself the same. He breezes in and out of the house, spending almost every free minute with his friends, and displays an indifference, mixed with annoying amounts of attitude and push back toward his parents, as he tries to create more space for him to leave.

While trying desperately to teach him all the lessons they are sure he doesn’t quite get, his parents do some reactive and proactive pushback. And yet, they continue dancing around their child, wishing they could keep him safe forever but knowing they need to open an opening for him to exit the circle.

The parents and child muddle through the “lasts” — the last Shabbat dinner, the last dinner with the extended family, and the previous night hanging out with friends. Goodbyes are said to all, the hardest ones saved for later. The two younger siblings, whose hearts will have a missing piece, and the parents.

“Don’t cry…again,” I repeat to myself as I trudge through the final week with my two college-bound children still at arm’s length from me. “Keep it light.” Yet, as hard as I try to keep dancing, sometimes I fall into the weepy abyss where feelings of joy mixed with pain and love combined with grief.

I am indeed a wimpy, overly attached mom. But also, a mom knows how to move aside and watch in wonder and delight as her college-bound children create their beautiful dance.

More to Read:

Why “Soiling the Nest” is a Real Thing In Our Family

About Grown and Flown

Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan are the co-founders of Grown and Flown the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. They are writers (Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author), moms, wives and friends. They started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and are co-authors of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

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