I stared up at his window, saying one last goodbye as he leaned out his screen-less dorm window, eager to start his new life on his own. I kept willing myself not to cry, not to let him see one tear fall down my cheek before turning around and heading to the car to leave. But my heart was racing and my chest was tight and I was certain I was going to have a heart attack right there on the spot. This was my first born, my buddy through so many ups and downs in life. And now, he was on his own. He was thrilled and I was crushed. I managed to get into my car, struggled with the seatbelt, and fought to breathe during what I am now certain was a panic attack as the rest of the family headed toward the highway, fighting every urge to turn the car around and force him to come back home with me. I knew he was where he needed to be, wanted to be, but it didn’t make it easier as his momma to just leave him there.
That was six years ago and the memory is just as fresh now as it was the day it happened. My chest still tightens thinking of the pain, swirling in conflict with pride. After all, this is what we are supposed to do as parents. Raise our little birds to soar. But I wasn’t prepared for the heartache.
You know how hard it is when you’re a new parent and you bring the baby home and you realize that nobody has really prepared you for what it feels like to get no sleep…to be so preoccupied with everything that you forget to brush your teeth until 2pm…to be brought to your knees by a crying baby who you can’t seem to satisfy? Well, you feel the same helplessness when your kiddos head off to college. Of course, you’re thrilled that they’re living the dream, finally pursuing the goals you always wanted them to have…but you can’t help feeling a little sad, too. No one tells you how hard it is to walk by their bedroom at night and crave a simple hug. Or how much you’re going to stare at your phone hoping for a hello text, or even better, a phone call! They say having a baby is like having your heart beat outside of your body…well, having them in another state is like walking around without a limb. That’s the best way I know to explain it.
So, how do you cope with it all?
This is absolutely one of those times where you should lean on your friends. Odds are you know other parents whose children also went off to college, and chances are they’re going through a similar heartache. When my kiddo started school, I created a closed Facebook group of other moms in the same shoes. That little group got me through the hard days. We really only needed each other for the first few months, and seemed to find a rhythm to dealing with our kiddo’s absence. I’m not saying you need to make a group to get through, but it will definitely help if you can connect with others who will understand what you’re going through.
It’ll also help if you create an understanding with your adult child before he leaves, setting out expectations for how often you’ll talk. I attended the University of Florida during the serial murders, so it was pretty important to me to know my son was ok each morning. I asked for a text when he woke up. That didn’t work out well and it caused friction, so we revised our understanding to my texting him first each day, and him responding. We agreed to a phone call about once a week. Sometimes it would be more. But he wasn’t much of a talker, and as much as I wanted him to be like my friend’s daughter, who called every morning on her way to class, that’s just not who he was and I had to accept it.
Another important tip: try to decide in advance when their first trip home will happen. It’s possible they’ll be a little homesick, and speaking from experience, it’s much better if you go visit him at school, then having him come home. It’ll only be harder for him to go back. But if you visit (PS–that first parents weekend is going to be epic–that’s the pic you see of me and my guy at the top of this post. Smiles from ear to ear. Hold on to that through the hard days in between), he’ll feel more like school is his new home, and as much as it might pain you to have him away, keeping him home is really not what’s best for him. And, let’s face it, the common theme as mom—at birth or 18 years later in college–is putting your child’s needs first.
You’ll get through this phase of his life, just like you got through those baby years.