Drop off day at college always makes me a little sad. Saying goodbye to your college student is bittersweet. If you’re doing this for the first time, your freshman is embarking on four years of self-discovery, growth, and excitement. Returning college students are excited to get back to their friends, independence, and maybe even some learning.
But you? Whether it’s day one of college life or going back to college, you are leaving behind something precious.
I love my kids, but I like them, too, and I just miss having them around. That tight feeling in my chest, the lump in the throat that threatens to erupt, the urgent need to organize the pantry area of their tiny kitchen to put off as long as possible the moment when it’s time to leave. That stupid photo of the toddler holding the suitcase and teddy bear that’s been floating around on Facebook for the past three weeks already has me primed to cry. That ache at walking away and leaving them behind doesn’t ever seem to go away completely.
The worst feeling is that of absence, the new jagged hole in your formerly perfect little family unit. Maybe you go to a restaurant on the ride home from drop off day, and have to ask for a table for three instead of four. Or part of you is subconsciously waiting for the sound of the back door opening as your son comes home from his summer job, or the sound of footsteps in the morning. It’s like pushing a bruise over and over again.
The next couple weeks after drop off day are going to be a little rough. But having done this about 10 times now, here’s how you get through it.
Advice For Parents of College Students: The First Days
1. Remember how you felt.
On your drive home and in the next few days, think back to when you were 18: After you got to campus, met your roommates, moved your things in, and your parents finally left, think of one word that describes how you felt. Relieved? Excited? Nervous? Maybe all of the above, but you definitely weren’t sad. You were finally free, independent, out on your own. Your future was finally here. This is how your new college student feels. Like the day you dropped them off at nursery school and they didn’t even look back at you, they will stop thinking about you the second you leave their dorm room. So this grief on drop off day that you’re experiencing? It’s all about YOU, not them.
2. Rage clean their room.
When you get home, go into their vacant bedroom. This may seem counterintuitive, but believe me, it helps. Look around at all the stuff they forgot to pack – the desk lamp, their orientation packet with their class schedule, the shoes they’ll ask you to send in a week. The closet full of outgrown clothes that you asked them 15 times this summer to go through, which of course they didn’t. And the mess they left: Dishes, empty Gatorade bottles, dirty Kleenex, globular used Q-tips on the bathroom sink. Irritation and annoyance are powerfully cathartic. A good rage cleaning definitely helps you to get over any lingering sadness.
3. Observe radio silence.
Do not call them for a week. I know you want to check up on them, but don’t do it. Your kid is busy getting to know roommates, making new friends, finding their way around campus. They need to conserve their emotional and psychological energy for getting settled in and making friends, not for assuaging their mother’s grief. Besides, they probably won’t answer when you call anyway. They won’t want to risk betraying any emotions in front of new roommates. If you talk to them when they are at an emotional low point, homesick, friendless, and going to dinner alone, you will feel sick with anxiety after you hang up. Meanwhile, they have merely used you as their emotional garbage chute to unload their anxieties, only to go play Frisbee with new friends the second they hang up with you. When you talk to them in a week or so, they will have had enough time to make a few friends, get to a few classes, and have a few positive, fun experiences to tell you about. You’ll both feel better by then.
4. Plan a project.
Focus on something at home. If you have younger kids, enjoy this time with them. Our youngest son was dreading the Eye of Sauron, all-encompassing parental gaze that would fall on him when he was the only child left at home. So after the other two were gone, we planned an outing to one of those rope-climbing and zip lining adventure courses. We went out to eat at his favorite restaurant, watched his favorite movies, and stocked the fridge with his favorite things. He quickly saw that having a little more attention wasn’t so bad. And we savored having some one-on-one time with him for the first time in his entire life.
If you’re now empty nesters, plan a project. Repaint a room or organize all the closets. Join a gym, plan a getaway weekend, have sex in every room of the house, or finally dedicate yourself to watching all 60 hours of “Game of Thrones.” Soon you’ll begin to remember what free time was like, that you used to enjoy things like concerts and happy hours when you didn’t have to pick up your son up at a friend’s house at midnight. Trust me: You will adapt to your new reality faster than you thought possible – and you’re going to love it.
Life is change. Remember that you raised your kids to leave you one day. If you did it right, they are prepared, capable, and ready for this. And they’ll be home for holidays and vacations before you know it. You made it through drop off day. And next summer, after only one year of college, you will be so ready for them to leave again.