Sending a Child to College; the Bittersweet Goodbye

Welcome to dorm life; first step toward independence
Welcome to dorm life; first step toward independence

You must let go to let them fly

When I graduated from high school, my parents gave me two gifts. One was a set of luggage and the other was a cedar hope chest. At first, my young teenage brain was perplexed. Luggage? "You've graduated, now get out!" And a hope chest? It's beautiful, but where am I going to put a piece of furniture? It wasn't until I began packing up my own daughter for college that I truely grasped the awesome symbolism in these two gifts.

The cedar chest was like an anchor. It patiently waited at home while I lived in a college dorm, participated in an overseas exchange program and got my own apartment upon receiving my college degree. It was a place to put my graduation gown and mortar board, college pendants and high school jacket. It propelled me onward as I tried out my wings in the world and promised that someday, I would take those things I loved and defined the word "home" with and begin a story that was all my own. Now it sits at the end of my bed, and stores my daughter's baptismal gown, a sweater my grandmother knit for her as a toddler and a favorite Halloween costume. Perhaps these items will bring me comfort in days to come when the house seems empty.

The luggage was a bit more obvious. They were the vessel in which to pack up my life and expand from a bedroom in a house, to a room on a college campus of my choosing. The luggage went with me to London as I experienced a different culture and met the man I would eventually marry. The luggage collected European dust, a dent from being thrown on countless baggage claim conveyor belts and the nervous sweat on my palm as I carried it to places unknown.

Those two items became an extention of me. Part of me was at home as I had always been, in my bedroom covered in band posters, stuffed animals and framed photos of friends. The other part of me was exploring the world beyond my hometown. A place where I was defining myself and meeting people who didn't know my parents.

Why did I have a hard time sending my own daughter on the same exciting transition? Because I was in a different role. I was now the parent sending, paying the bills and being left behind in the familiar house with a definate void that would be my new normal.

The first thing to do as a parent, is prepare yourself. I kept trying on the cloak of "parent-of-a-college-student" on months before we packed up the car. I had her begin making decisions while she was still at my side. Smiling at her being overwhelmed at the little details and wanting to "save" her and yet patiently watching her wrestle it out by herself and being able to talk it over with her. Things like how do I purchase textbooks? Do I go to the student store or do some research online? What do I bring? What if my roommate brings too much? What if they snore? What if I made the wrong decision of which college to attend?

Breathe. Model it for your child. Take one day at a time and recognize that this is a good season. It is normal for them to be excited and anxious and for you to be sad and apprehensive. But it is neccessary for adulthood. In a culture that doesn't have a rigid "rite-of-passage" this comes pretty close. Your time of "input" has ended and your student takes all that you have instilled in them since kindergarten with them as they maneuver life decisions apart from you.

Banish the "What-ifs." They will keep you up at night. The majority of them won't even come to pass. Handle them when they come not if they come, one at a time. Encourage your child in the same way. Prepare them as best you can and trust in their ability to stand. To fly. To soar.

Sounds nice, but what is are the practical things to say and pack? Teach them about finances, banking and managing money. Be sure to send them with spending cash and realize you'll probably be co-sigining on a house someday. Baby steps. Pack a survival kit for the dorms. This includes pre-packaged snack foods like granola bars, juice boxes and chocolate. Also send them with aspirin, bandaids and toothpaste. Basics that have been readily available at home, but when they are on their own, they may take these essentials for granted. Fight the urge to over pack. It is a dorm room with limited space and you can reassure them that you will safely hold their stuff until the time comes for an apartment.

Give your student space. This was a purposeful decision on my part as a parent. I had to decide to do something else with my time so I wasn't tempted to "spam" their instagram and facebook accounts! You may be thinking of them more than they think of you. This is also normal. Don't guilt trip them into your idea of what college will look like. I had to let go of all the notions I had picked up from books and movies and take the transition as it was given to us. My daughter got wrapped up in the excitement of the college once we arrived on campus and was gone before I got a photo of the two of us together! The goodbye hug was way too short and she never once asked me if I was going to be okay. I had to laugh at myself and admit that these ideals were all about me, not her. She was ready for adventure. Could I blame her and did I truely want it any other way?

So I returned to our quiet home in a different state from where she lives. I got out my red marker to "X" off all the days on the calendar until Christmas break. But I don't plan to tell her that. I am going to invest my time as a "hometown tourist." There is a walking food tour I plan to take downtown. I'll be able to tell her about it in December. I've been meaning to finish that novel I started last year. Re-paint a bedroom. Learn a new recipe. Start a bunko group. Whatever it takes, my life will go on and the next chapter will contain great memories like this last one did.

This chapter is different. Your student is growing into an adult and your relationship will evolve and be re-defined, but what a great season this is as well. No more late nights waiting up to see if she makes curfew. No more "can I borrow the car?" and realizing I have no more gas in the tank. Proms, football games, midterms; all in the past. Now I get to have her on vacation time. We'll share a coffee and fill each other in on all the weeks that we spent apart. It will be good. I am choosing good. It's their time and I applaud the process through my mommy tears of saddness. Where have the years gone?

So I packed her set of luggage and sent her out into the world. I will hold her cedar hope chest safe here at home. I will help her put those sentimental items in there for storage and will hold down the homefront for her. With prayers and a song, I send you with a smile. Go and live, my daughter. Life is waiting.

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