It’s back to school time once again. Soon, at campuses across America, parents will hug their kids and say tearful farewells after moving them into their college dorms. I still remember how sad I was after dropping each of my children off at college. I managed to keep it together while we moved everything into their dorm rooms, and even while I choked out a good bye, but once I got into the car and we pulled away, I lost it. I cried my eyes out.
Friends had told me I would be sad after my oldest left for college, but I was completely unprepared for the sadness that overwhelmed me for the first 6 weeks. It surprised me because it felt so much like real grief. I was grieving the end of life as I knew it with my oldest daughter. Never again would it be the same because she would never “live” at home again in the same way, and I would no longer see her on a daily basis. Never again would I be the same kind of mom as I had been for the past 17 years.
I tried talking to others about how I felt and they were understanding, sure, but then they immediately changed the conversation to focus on how great it was for my husband and me to have more free time and how proud we must be of our daughter. Of course, I was happy for her, and sure, it would be nice to have more free time, but right then, all I could think about was the emptiness I felt with her gone. It was as if you had cut off my left arm. I would think about all of this and feel guilty because after all, I hadn’t lost my child – she was 2 1/2 hours away at college. What right did I have to feel so miserable when there were parents out there who had forever lost children to illness and tragedies? My grief paled in comparison.
I struggled with my daughter not needing me very much anymore. I was happy for her newly found independence and how well she handled it, but I wasn’t really clear about what my role was. How often should I call her? Would I be intruding on her new life? Was it best to give her the space she needed to separate from me and become her own person. These are the things I struggled with. Who was I now that my daughter was gone? What else would I do to give my life meaning on a daily basis?
In the end, I allowed myself to feel grief and my sadness gradually waned. I threw myself into other activities and slowly found a new way of mothering my daughter. I still cried every year when she returned to college. And I still cry when my other kids leave for college or when they return after being home for break.
As my oldest daughter progressed through college, I could tell she needed space, and I allowed her that. Eventually, she didn’t need space anymore and she came back from school a mature and delightful young woman who loved spending time with her family. Our relationship has evolved as she has grown older. Sure, she doesn’t need me like she did when she was four or twelve, but she still needs me. And I need her. And it’s wonderful.
When your kids leave for college, you will probably feel profoundly sad. Allow yourself grace. Give yourself time. Talk to people who will listen to you. Comfort one another. It’s not the end, but the beginning of a new relationship for you and your child.