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 about them. I decided that there must be something wrong with/missing from me or my life if saying good-bye was this hard. I have wondered, endlessly, why it hurts so much when they go.”  Knowing My Sons a Little Less by Grown and Flown

Me too, Grown and Flown, 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

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 really 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 the forefront of 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 that this may be her last summer home.

While it is inevitable part of the parenting experience, and also contains large amounts of joy, the child leaving/mother letting go process is one of the most brutal processes I have experienced. While we do 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 looms everywhere the summer before they go. It feels like a slow, and 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 both just 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 so often gets 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 most every free minute with his friends, and displays an indifference, mixed with maddening amounts of attitude and push back, toward his parents, as he tries to create more space for him to leave.

His parents, while trying to desperately to teach him all the lessons they are sure he just doesn’t quite get, do some reactive and proactive push back of their own. And yet, they continue to dance around their child, wishing they could keep him safe forever, but knowing they need to make 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 last night hanging out with friends. Goodbyes are said to all, the hardest ones saved for last. The two younger siblings, whose hearts will have a missing piece, and finally 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 mix with pain, and love mixes with grief.

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

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Julie Burton is an experienced writer specializing in any and all aspects of parenting, relationships and finding balance. She is a wife and mother of four children ranging in age from 11 to 20. Her book entitled, “The Self-Care Solution—A Modern Mother’s Essential Guide to Health and Well-Being” will be published in May 2016. You can find her at unscripted mom.

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