When my firstborn left for college, I was so ready for it (or so I thought.) I had read all the advice columns on how to properly and maturely wade my way through these unfamiliar waters. I read about all the right things to say and do at drop off, what to buy and what not to buy for the dorm, how my relationship with my child was going to change, and how this new season of parenting can and would be full of joy and gratitude. I had raised a college bound child! I was to be commended and proud, right? I was supposed be over the moon happy!
All of my mom friends who had gone through this phase before extolled their wisdom on me – expressing how getting that first baby off to college is such a wonderful blessing – and how I will feel fine and at peace as soon as I drive away from the resident hall steps, and away from that big scary campus.
“Don’t worry!” they all said.
“You won’t cry but for a few minutes!” they all promised.
“You won’t believe how great you’re going to feel!” they all guaranteed.
“You’ll feel so proud you won’t even spend much time missing them!” they all ensured.
I bought it.
I bought all of those well-meaning bits of advice, and told myself what I was really feeling (completely lost, lonely, and unsure of everything) wasn’t normal. I told myself to pull it together! Be strong! Stop being a mom wimp!
I had dropped him off a college and returned home an absolute mess, wondering why nobody told me the truth. The real truth.
And then I had one friend – one single friend – who was thankfully (and brutally) honest enough to tell me what her truth was, and how she really felt leaving her firstborn at college.
“Ok now listen to me,” she pleaded with stern eyes. “I wasn’t OK until October. Like, at all. I was a freaking mess. I was that mom who wandered around the house lost, walking by an empty bedroom and bursting into tears-struggling not only with the fact he wasn’t here- but with the fact I had no idea what he was doing. I worried about everything.”
I stood there dumbfounded, and refreshingly relieved. Finally, someone who was telling me like it IS, not sugar coating what was going to happen to me. Someone who wasn’t just blowing off my fears and anxieties. Someone who was not making it all seem so easy and perfect. Here stood a been there done that mom who willingly shared her experience – without an inch of shame or worry of judgement from me.
She went on, “I panicked about all of it, and my mind went a million places all day long. Who is he with? Is he eating? Studying? Is he lonely? Is he drunk somewhere? Why won’t he call me?”
The vulnerability she displayed in what she told me, mixed in with the compassion she gave me as she touched my shoulder and explained her fears, instantly gave me an overwhelming sense of peace. Here stood someone who got me, finally.
“You know what? That first fall away? I didn’t feel OK and like myself again until October,” she finished.
And she was right, for me at least.
Thanks to her, I allowed myself to feel all the feels, and to experience this new season of motherhood in a way that felt right to me, and nobody else. If I wasn’t able to put on a happy and brave face about my son going away to college, then so be it. My feelings were my feelings, and there was no right or wrong way to feel them. And for the first time, I let them flow without internal debate about being strong and happy about the major life change that just happened.
By October (just like she said), I had a complete change in feelings. I compare it to the first few months of having a newborn – when you’re walking around exhausted and in a zombie like state – wondering why everyone said motherhood is so great and nobody told you how numbingly hard those first weeks are. And then one day everything goes smoothly, as you and your baby have settled into a new rhythm of life, and it all feels normal again – OK even.
That is how I started to feel by mid-October.
Nights filled with panicked anxiety about his whereabouts turned into days filled with excitement and wonder for all the new things he was experiencing. Time was slowly healing lonely and lost thoughts, and my life was steering in what finally felt like the right direction. Positive self-talk replaced woe is me talk, and I took back my mothering confidence that had escaped me.
The experiences every mother has when their baby goes away to college (or military, or some other post high school obligation or adventure) vary immensely from one to the next. There is no right or wrong way to feel, only your way. Your sadness may last days, weeks, or months, and may be in stark contrast to someone’s else’s joy, and that’s perfectly fine.
But for the sake of those newbie college moms out there who may be suffering in silence, however you feel, just be as honest as you can about it. Put yourself back in those scary and unknown shoes for a moment, give that mom a big hug, and tell her no matter what timeline she is on, those feelings of “now what?” and sadness won’t last forever.
As a matter of fact, with each subsequent kid who leaves for college, I have a feeling those daunting feelings go away much faster. And thank goodness. Because soon enough we’ll be worrying about the grandchildren. Gulp.
Melissa Fenton is a freelance writer and adjunct librarian at Pasco-Hernando State College. Find her writing all over the internet, but her work mostly on the dinner table. She is on Facebook at 4BoysMother and on twitter at @melissarunsaway.