The end of August approaches, and the dreaded “college drop off” darkens the last sunny summer days with gloom.
Was it really that long ago that we gingerly drove them home from the maternity ward? And we saw them through miracles of milestones — smiling, talking, crawling, walking, school’s first day, first friends, music lessons, sports teams, art camps?
Remember those life size stork lawn ornaments announcing, “It’s a Girl!/Boy!” Here is the counterpart; our little bundles of joy are perched on the nest’s edge, wings outstretched, poised for take off. Without US!
Be these our first, middle or last college-bound children, their departures create disorienting upheaval. And just as we couldn’t truly know what it would be like to become parents until we became parents, with babies in arms, so too we can’t truly fathom what it will be like to say good-bye to our teens at college until we drive away, without them.
Yet, unlike the blitz of information we were beseiged by about "what to expect when expecting," the world is radio silent about what to expect when releasing our teens to the universe.
And in keeping with our cultural convention of being stoically private about loss, we don't open up and share with fellow parents of college-bound teens. So we remain alone in our struggles. And it aches, in our throats and hearts.
Of all the separations we’ve helped our kids navigate, this final separation feels backwards. Our teens exude excitement (blended with uncertainty) while we are steeped in melancholy.
Remember the late summer Staple’s advertisement, with the glum child dragging his feet down the school supplies aisle, while his mom kicks up her heels with jubilation? Now WE’RE the glum shoppers pushing the Bed Bath and Beyond carts as our kids throw dorm supplies in with elated (and expensive!) abandon.
Truth be told, we’re not solely sentimental about our teens’ departures, given the abundant reminders of just how difficult they can be:
“I CAN’T be home for family dinner: this is the LAST TIME I’ll (fill in the blank here); see Susie before she leaves; go to the Shore with 2 of my 17 BFFs, see Fred on a mid-month Thursday when it’s not raining…”
“OK, Ok, so I left the pizza boxes and ice cream cartons from last Friday in the TV room; I said I’ll clean it up! Calm Down! I’m not leaving for another 2 weeks!…”
“What does it MATTER that I got back at 4am; in two weeks at college I’ll be out all night and you won’t have any say in it!”
Many parents find that their college-bound teens have become far more challenging of late, like they’ve morphed into caricatures of their most irritating teenage selves.
It's a mistake, though, to take their offensive behavior at face value. Psychologically and developmentally, milestone "leaps" are preceded by phases of preparatory tension. Remember our kids fussy “out of sorts” phases before crawling, walking and the onset of puberty?
Mother nature has a way of revving the emotional rocket boosters to generate extra energy to propel its payload up and out of its resting atmosphere. Our teens are storing up extra “umph” to see them through the first wobbly weeks of college.
The silver lining to this storm cloud is that our teens’ heightened irritability makes their departure from the family easier for us! (Do not DARE point this out to them, however..) If they succeed in provoking the worst parental misbehaviors out of us with their alienating behaviors, then they’ve succeeded in making their good-bye to us so much easier! (For those teens who are especially heartsick about leaving home, do them the courtesy of helping them out the door by being particularly toxic, intrusive and demanding parents!)
Beneath the surface, we’re all suffering about the imminent separation. This is one of those few junctures in family life where the road parts permanently.
Of course we’ll be their parents as long as we’re alive. Of course the bond will continue deepening and evolving. But never again will our teens be under our wings and roofs in quite the same way (even if they wind up having to move back in post-college).
As surely as our teens are embarking on new paths of their life journeys, so too are we. How much of our melancholy pertains to the holes our college-bound kids are leaving behind in our lives? After all, for the past 18 years or more, our sense of worthiness and life mission have been significantly derived from parenting. Now how do we define ourselves?
All of this may just feel too raw to confront directly, with our teens, with each other, even within ourselves. That’s ok. Sometimes we are best refraining from addressing truths that are too blinding to look at unblinkingly.
Sometimes quietly living through the moments of these times of heartache is the best we can do. Still, how do we navigate these dreaded upcoming days?
1) Try to remain in a place of centered nonreactive calm through the turmoil of this transition. Breathe deep, exhale fully and remain focused on your ultimate parental mission: surrounding your teens with loving support as they prepare to leave.
2) Have compassion for yourselves and your teens; err on the side of helping, hugging and humor rather than irritability, which only poisons the atmosphere (and, like a flung boomerang, comes right back at you).
3) Savor times of low-key, agenda-free, companionable togetherness with your teens, without hovering. Keep them company while they sort through and pack their stuff; take them to lunch after their haircuts, set aside petty preoccupations to be fully present with your teens. (Is this not how we ought to be with all whom we cherish? After all, our time is fleeting. We will have to say good-bye to each other some how, one day.)
4) Resist temptations to cram last minute parental nuggets of wisdom down your kids’ gullets. If they haven’t gotten what you have to offer by now, they never will, and you’ll succeed only in patronizing and alienating them.
5) Plan an upbeat special occasion for the day after you return from college drop-off (e.g. a comedy club in NYC, a night at a bed and breakfast). This way you will have established a focus point on the horizon beyond the good-bye to look forward, to so that college-drop-off doesn’t feel like a dismal dead-end for you.
6) Print out some family photos to tape on their dorm walls, or suspend from photo-hanging mobiles with photo clips to bring touches of home to their new dorm room nests (unless, of course, you know your teens would abhor such displays).
7) Take time before the departure day to write letters conveying a few memories, hopes, amusing anecdotes, admired qualities. Tuck the letters in bags of their favorite treats and sneak it under their pillows for them to discover after your good-bye. This is as much for you as for them. Your pangs of grief as you drive away will be assuaged by the knowledge that you left tokens of your heartfelt love for their later discovery and consumption.
8) Exercise expectation control. Everything about the drive, unpacking, setting up, and departing is apt to be chaotic, tense and disorienting. Don’t expect to have deep and loving discussions during the drive or drop off phases; your teens are apt to be far too preoccupied and stressed. Have those exchanges before you embark on the trip.
9) Remember the advice from preschool teachers about dropping off our toddlers on the first day of preschool: parents’ demeanor about leave-taking sets the tone for their children’s responses. Teens are privately struggling with poignant feelings of loss; of us, of the security of the familiar, of youth. They need to be reassured by parental confidence in their abilities to thrive and ours to survive without them. They DON’T need us crumpling with mournful clinginess, which burdens them with more sorow, worries about our wellbeing and guilt about their growing up. This is not to say we shouldn’t be true to ourselves or not cry. It is to say that we should call up our faith in our own and our teens’ fortitude to embolden ourselves and our teens at this vulnerable, fragile moment of parting.
10) Be prepared for the times you’ll feel ambushed by haunting reminders of your teens’ conspicuous absence; in driving home without them; in not stumbling on strewn sneakers and snack debris, in not buying hordes of food for them when shopping. (I had to keep bedroom doors closed for a while to spare myself the jarring sight of the vacant (and unnaturally tidy!) bedrooms.
If you find yourselves awash with waves of mourning, ask yourselves the following: Would you really want any other scenario at this time? Would you really prefer that your teens were staying home, not attending college, living with you? (uh huh- I thought so...did you notice how swiftly shudders of horror chilled you down your spines? ) Our teens have outgrown their lives here at home, thanks to our loving nurturance. They need new friends, new intellectual challenges, new independent responsibilities. They are like hermit crabs; they need to shed the constricting family “shells” that impede growth, and seek more spacious shells of their own to grow into.
Mark my words: When they return for Thanksgiving and Winter Break we will celebrate, their return, certainly. But we will also experience them as encroaching interlopers on our newfound order and peace. Our college freshmen’s joyfully anticipated re-entry into the family “shell” will make us feel strangely overcrowded by their intrusion of needs and idiosyncrasies (and laundry!). Such will be signs of ways we’ve grown in our teens’ absence. Their departures enable us to grow as well as our teens.
How we can yield wide-ranging and enriching growth will be the subject of the upcoming post "Growing Into Your Emptying Nest."