I cannot breathe. I stand awkwardly in the parking lot, unable to force air into and out of my lungs. One of the greatest loves of my life, a person I’ve held onto as tightly as possible for the past eighteen years, is leaving me. As much as I’ve tried to prepare for this day, a day I knew was coming, I’m now paralyzed, unable to speak or think or breathe.
He’s scared too, I can tell. He’s also eager to get this over with and I’m not helping matters. One last hug and he turns away, walking quickly up the sidewalk, swiping his newly acquired security ID across the keypad. I stand there helplessly watching as he disappears behind the dorm’s front door and out of my sight. I am sure my heart is about to burst right out of my chest.
Somehow I hold it together for the long four hour return drive home. But once back, I am greeted by a place that is now much too dark and quiet and still. I walk into the family room and finally let it all go – crying so hard I don’t think I will ever be able to stop.
This, my friends, was my first official day as an empty nester.
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It was five years ago this month that my son Jimmy went off to college. I’ll admit here and now that the physical separation from my only child was one of the most difficult experiences of my life. My self-inflicted “oh I’m just fine” facade was not healthy nor helpful. I was steadfastly certain that if I shared what I was going through, I would have been greeted with snide remarks about cutting apron strings and getting a life and how this was the best thing for my child. I should have had more faith in my gal pals. I know now that they would have offered – as they always do – support and encouragement.
It occurs to me today, as I look over on my kitchen counter and see all the glossy advertisements for college dorm room essentials and bargains, that maybe a few of my lessons learned from that first year of separation might help someone out there who is currently hiding her fears and anxieties.
By the way, I’m no expert. I am not a psychologist, there is no Ph D. behind my name. I in no way profess to be anything other than a parent who has lived through what you are experiencing. But, I can tell you this: It’s going to be OK. Here are just a few additional thoughts I wish someone had shared with me five years ago:
- Practice this mantra: they are away, they are not gone. They are away, the same way they were away at camp or visiting relatives last summer. You will soon see them at Thanksgiving or parents weekend.
- Do stay in touch, but don’t “hover.” Texting is your best friend. A random daily text lets you know they are OK, they are alive and up and out of the dorm. We are very lucky to be parents in the technology age.
- Everything, in all probability, is not going to be perfect. The roommate may not be the best fit. Your straight-A high school student may struggle a bit academically. That tennis team they thought they were a shoe-in to be selected for: it might not happen. If you also went to college, try to think back to that first year – it is unpredictable and a little overwhelming. As much as you are going to hate it, you’ve got to let your kid figure it out. I’m not saying abandon them – just the opposite. When they need your help, be there for them 100% – but it’s a fine line you are going to be walking the first year.
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- Your child will probably get homesick– this is NORMAL. The key is to discern homesickness from depression – I acknowledge, it can be a difficult call.
- It’s OK for you to be sad, it’s normal for you to be sad, but please don’t let that spill over to where your child feels guilty or worries unnecessarily about you. I’m not sure I was always the best at this. My son told me recently that there were times when he worried about how I was doing.
- For additional advice regarding surviving and thriving in your new empty nest you can check out: http://parentingteens.about.com/cs/emptynest/a/tipsempty.htm I also like 7 Tips for Parents to Manage Empty Nest Syndrome by Huffington Post blogger John Tsilimparis, as well as the website Grown and Flown.
If all goes well, and it most likely will, your child is going to have a blast. My son, in my opinion, had an amazing time at college: he graduated and started his Ph.D. program last year. He found his way, made great friends, and evolved into the man I always dreamed he would become. I love and cherish the time I now get to spend with him, but he’s begun to have his own life and priorities – and it’s great! I don’t even cry anymore when he leaves after a visit – this did not happen overnight; but you will get there, I promise.
One last time, just for good measure – deep breath –it’s going to be OK.
Do you have advice for parents who are sending their children off to college?