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.
Image provided courtesy of photopin.com, photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/rossap/3261955036/”>ROSS HONG KONG</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>cc</a>
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.
Image provided courtesy of photopin.com photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/youngwon/12167295/”>Young-won</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>cc</a>
- 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?
Greg Mischio saysAugust 18, 2014 at 10:02 am
Been thinking about this a lot as my son enters his senior year of high school. I miss him already. Thanks for the post!
Kimba saysAugust 18, 2014 at 12:42 pm
Enjoy that Senior year! I actually miss Friday night football games and Saturday band competitions.
jacshenderson564 saysAugust 11, 2014 at 11:20 am
You had me crying just reading that Kimba …it is one of those times when the universe parts for us, but we know it’s the right thing for the young to branch out and start their lives… I had the experience with my step-son… and kept very busy buying and preparing before he left… then unpacking the car on arrival at the uni residence… then that well of huge emotion as that moment comes …
For me, much of that is knowing the ups and downs and pains and lessons of the road ahead for them in life which they have yet to discover and learn to deal with themselves…
but like you say, they are only away and they come home.
We begin the journey of watching them flourish into a man (or woman!)
Kim Dalferes saysAugust 15, 2014 at 12:30 pm
Aw Jacs, I can tell just from what you wrote that it was hard for you to let your son go – but staying busy is key, right? Stepping back and watching their missteps and triumphs is all part of the job.
dltolley saysAugust 9, 2014 at 11:58 am
All graduated here. Now they are returning while they save for that all-important house . . .
Kimba saysAugust 9, 2014 at 12:06 pm
Oh, what is THAT like? A reverse commute…
Lois Alter Mark saysAugust 9, 2014 at 1:38 am
My youngest just graduated college so this is the first year we have no one home for the summer, then going back to school. It’s bittersweet, for sure, and I miss them both so much but they’re doing what they should be doing and I’m grateful they still call or text almost every day! How did these years fly by?
Kimba saysAugust 9, 2014 at 11:43 am
Life is moving way too fast – reminds me to take time to slow down during these last days of summer.
taylorgilmore saysAugust 8, 2014 at 11:08 pm
My son commuted so I was spared the “off to college breakdown”. But I didn’t know what hit me when he moved into his own place. He was 24 and I came back home after helping him move and cried like a hungry newborn.
Kimba saysAugust 9, 2014 at 11:45 am
It still “hits me” at odd moments: like finding a picture he drew for me in the 2nd grade; of course it could also just be menopause…
Annah Elizabeth saysAugust 8, 2014 at 8:49 pm
My youngest graduates next year and though I have felt a few little twinges of anticipatory anxiety, I tell myself what I told myself when his older siblings went away: I’ve raised them to be independent and now it’s time I let them share their talents with the rest of the world…
And, one of the greatest gifts I gave myself was to begin doing what I’d always wanted to do, writing and speaking, so that when the last one left the nest, I’d be able to fly off in my own directions…
Sending hugs,s healing, and happiness to all you new and up-and-coming empty nesters!
Kimba saysAugust 9, 2014 at 11:47 am
A very happy flight to you Annah – where can we find your writing?
WendysHat saysAugust 8, 2014 at 7:39 pm
My youngest went away to college last year and we were so excited for her that there was no time for sadness. I do feel that technology keeps us very close. Nice thoughts here that you shared. I know I’m a rare one to not ever be sad about this topic.
Kimba saysAugust 9, 2014 at 11:48 am
They’re off to college so we should be very proud, right? Thx for reminding us that it’s a happy time too.
Marquita Herald (@marquitaherald) saysAugust 8, 2014 at 6:00 pm
For better or worse I can’t contribute a single pearl of wisdom to your wonderful post because I don’t have children and I can’t even relate to your experience from my own life heading off to college BUT it’s a lovely article and excellent advice!
Kimba saysAugust 9, 2014 at 11:51 am
Thx Marti – I know your loving spirit supports many who are taking off on adventures.
Transitioning Mom saysAugust 8, 2014 at 5:39 pm
Excellent counsel! I’m working a piece with a similar spin. May I link back to yours here?
Kim Dalferes saysAugust 9, 2014 at 12:07 am
Of course! I just read your post on Transitioning Mom – terrific and spot on!
Elaine Ambrose (@AmbroseElaine) saysAugust 8, 2014 at 5:18 pm
Excellent resources. I’m so grateful my grown children live close – so I can spoil the grandkids!
Kimba saysAugust 9, 2014 at 11:53 am
Grandkids, jealous here! I hit 50 and the internal clock was like “so, where are the little ones at?” Hubby Greg’s response: “Who ARE you?!”
doreenb8 saysAugust 8, 2014 at 4:22 pm
I was devastated when my two youngest left at the same time.That cault me off guard.
The crying lasted until November that year. I kept myself busy and tried to concentrate on ‘me’ things.
Kimba saysAugust 9, 2014 at 11:56 am
Two at once, whoa. Keeping busy is definitely the key. I could fill a blog post with the projects I’ve done to stay busy… hey, thx for the inspiration!! Where did I put those pics of the powder room makeover…
janieemaus saysAugust 8, 2014 at 3:56 pm
I cried my way through Durango after leaving my daughter at school. But she didn’t like it and came back after one semester. Still, if she had stayed, I know I would have adjusted.
Kimba saysAugust 9, 2014 at 11:57 am
It sure is a process. That must have been a difficult decision after the first semester. I’ve had close friends who have struggled when deciding if the fit is not right.
Cathy saysAugust 8, 2014 at 2:40 pm
My son went away, and after I moved him in I walked off the campus and found a bench by the Chesapeake, and cried my eyes out. Unfortunately it was a bad experience at the school, so he came home after one semester and now commutes. I told him (as casually as possible) that it’s a gift to have him here for the extra years.
I’ll have to go thru it all over again someday. He’s hardly home with work and school, but I still know at night he’s in the next room.
I remember your ache, and felt it again when I read your story.
Kimba saysAugust 9, 2014 at 12:00 pm
Sorry to hear it wasn’t a good experience for your son. Glad to hear he is thriving now. I know from experience that the first semester can be a doozie.
Gail (aunt of wise acre James) Dalferes saysAugust 8, 2014 at 2:22 pm
Agree with bro – thanks for coming clean 🙂 Sorry I bought your bs back then, but so glad you shared this awesome story now. I will share with my pals who are navigating this time of conflicting emotions. Hugs.
Kimba saysAugust 9, 2014 at 12:01 pm
Thx for stopping my sista – you should hear your brother’s side of the story, he earned many get out of jail cards during your nephew’s freshman year!
CaptCruncher saysAugust 8, 2014 at 12:58 pm
My son was not a texter or a caller. Days would go buy with no reply. I had to learn to breathe and know that he was probably doing so much better than I was! Busy was my best friend!
CaptCruncher saysAugust 8, 2014 at 12:59 pm
or “by” not buy… Hate to watch typos fly into cyberspace…so sorry!
Kimba saysAugust 9, 2014 at 12:04 pm
Doreen also mentioned the need to stay busy – an excellent point.I may have to develop a top ten list of ways to stay busy during their first semester – any suggestions?
James (son of Kim) Budnick saysAugust 8, 2014 at 11:13 am
Get your sh*t together Carol!
Kim Dalferes saysAugust 8, 2014 at 12:12 pm
Well hi there my fine young son! Thought you might enjoy this post. 🙂
Rosie Battista saysAugust 8, 2014 at 10:59 am
I never got the chance to hold it together. My son handed me a dozen roses on the way out the door to drive him to college with a note that said “thanks for raising me”… and so released the flood gates. OMG! I have a picture of this moment and it never fails to grab hold of my heart. Special divine moments in motherhood, unconditional love and letting go! Thanks Kimberly Joyce Dalferes for a great post.
Kim Dalferes saysAugust 8, 2014 at 12:15 pm
Roses – wow! Definitely would have crushed me, what an amazing gesture. I bet you saved the card… I think I would have been tempted to make it my Christmas card cover.
Danielle saysAugust 8, 2014 at 10:52 am
This is such an important read! and your life demonstrates how the mother-child relationship only grows!
Kim Dalferes saysAugust 8, 2014 at 12:13 pm
You my dear are also the poster-child for positive relationships with your children after they have flown the coop.
Greg D. saysAugust 8, 2014 at 10:46 am
Best story ever !!!
Kimba saysAugust 9, 2014 at 12:05 pm
Kudos to the man who helped me hold it together – thx Hon!