Now what? To the parents sending kids to college, Part 2

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Hey there, friends! Oh, this week has been a doozy for some of you, hasn’t it? I seriously wish I could hug all of you who just launched a child, I really do. And for those of you that I have seen, let me offer my sincere apologies if you’re not a hugger – I usually figure that out only after it’s too late. There’s nothing worse if you’re the hugging type than realizing mid-hug that the person you are enthusiastically embracing is not, in fact, someone who enjoys that sort of thing. But I digress… As promised, here’s Part 2 of the sending kiddos to college post: what helped me when my son went to school last year. And I know this is a horrible way to start an essay, because it creates absolutely no suspense, but I’m going to tell you straight off that we all got through the year just fine. Really. Everyone survived. It was actually a great year, once we all adapted to our new normal.

And that’s really the thing – adapting. Accepting that there’s a new normal in your household now that you’re a man (or woman) down, and giving yourself and your other family members time to adjust. Yes, time. For those of us who are of the more impatient persuasion, this is the most challenging part. We want to have this figured out NOW. We want things to be all better NOW. And you will indeed figure it out, and things will definitely be better, they just might have to be a little funky for a bit while you work through it. And that’s ok.

From my one-year-out vantage point, I can see a few things that helped me get through this transition time:

Technology is your friend.
Holy crap, I never loved technology more than when my son went to college. I’ve always viewed technology with a wary eye, because it’s weird and awkward to me and I stink at operating anything with buttons. But now? Oh, I am a huge fan. Between texting, FaceTime/Skype, Snapchat and whatever is next that I don’t know about yet, it has become nearly effortless for our kids at college to connect with us. Think about it: back in the Dark Ages when we were in school, if we wanted to let our parents know we were still alive and well, we had to write actual letters (and then find stamps and mail them), or get the phone when our roommate wasn’t using it and, if our roommate or others were in the room, have a very public conversation with our parents (remember when phones had cords? Yeah, me neither…). Now, with only a swipe of a finger across their smartphone, they can ask quick questions, send silly pictures or lament that the calculus test was, in fact, as impossible as they feared it would be.

Now, a few caveats to that: first of all, technology is a great way for them to get in touch with us. It is also, unfortunately, a spectacular way for us to bug the crap out of them. Be judicious. For the first few days of school (maybe it was a week, I can’t remember), I followed the advice of others and never texted or called my son – I only responded when he texted or called me. That was hard, friends. But I knew that just as we were adjusting to our new normal here, he was attempting to do the same there, and I wanted to let him figure out how often he needed to connect with us. I did remind him that if he went too long without contact, we would start to worry that he was dead, and since I have raised him to be just as sarcastic as his parents, I did get a few Snapchats throughout the year with the caption “See? Still alive, Mom.” I also particularly enjoyed the picture of the laundry machine in their dorm, with the caption, “The Tide Pod got stuck. Will it still work?” Yes, thanks in large part to the oh-so-confusing task of doing laundry, I heard from him very regularly in the first few months (I won’t get into the text asking how to wash sheets…in January…). Speaking of Snapchat and the like, my son and I had a rule about that: when he sent me a snap, I promised to never respond with a selfie. Yes, that is how Snapchat usually operates, but this simple rule assured him that he could open a snap from me in public without risking the potentially embarrassing picture of his mom making a goofy face. That was our thing. Talk with your kids and figure out what they want. For us, when he actually wanted to see us, we’d schedule a time to FaceTime together. He’d text us when he had a free moment and his roommate wasn’t around, and we’d all eagerly gather around my iPad. And let’s be honest here – it was probably our dogs that he wanted to see most, but we didn’t care. It was fun to see the college student in his natural habitat.

Understand that family dynamics will change.
My son’s not a large kid, but the Riley-sized hole in our family after he left was surprisingly wide. With time we adjusted, but it initially felt like a giant Jenga game where someone had removed a block right in the middle. And while we didn’t topple, our family structure did sway a little as we took stock of the change. I’m ashamed to admit that at first I was so focused on how his absence impacted me that I didn’t notice how tough it was on everyone else – until our daughter had a tough day. A reeeeally tough day. And I realized that when she’s stressed or upset, her big brother has always been the one who could help her the most. He is so good at diffusing her anger when she’s frustrated, consoling her when she’s hurt – and he can always make her laugh. She and I, however, are a little too alike for our own good sometimes. I am the proverbial gas can to her proverbial fire, and without Riley around we had a few flare ups that got out of hand. So we had to adjust. We had to figure out some new ways of relating to each other, and that wasn’t a bad thing. My daughter and I are closer now than we’ve ever been, and I’m certain it’s because we were forced to figure a few things out.

Get yourself a posse.
I met a woman last weekend in line for pizza (true story), and we instantly bonded the second she ruefully shared that she was preparing to send her twin sons to college. Having learned my lesson earlier, I resisted the urge to lunge forward and hug her (but oh how I wanted to! We are sisters now!). We talked at length about how this time is both exciting and heartbreaking for parents, and about the need for support, and she brought up a really good point: we have to actively seek it out now. When our kids are on sports teams or involved in extra-curricular activities, we automatically have a connection with other parents. “I’m really going to miss them,” she said quietly. And it’s true – sitting on sidelines, bleachers or auditorium seats next to other parents, we are unintentionally participating in a kind of support group. Granted, like the dad on my son’s hockey team who used to show up drunk and heckle the players, not all of these other parents are helpful, but they are in a similar place in life. And some of them become close friends. We can still have that now, but we’re going to have to be intentional about it.

When my son went to college last year, I leaned heavily on my girlfriends. I needed the validation of knowing that I wasn’t the only one who was struggling, and I clung to the reassurances from moms of older kids that it was absolutely going to be ok. It took a bit of vulnerability on my part – sometimes I had to be the first to admit that I was finding this whole thing challenging – but as soon as I dropped my guard, others did too. And if they didn’t, if they came at me with scolding or cute little sayings about birds nests, I simply knew that they weren’t the people I needed to be around right then. I know of several moms who connected with other parents from their kids’ sports teams and started meeting regularly – and by “meeting” I mean going out for happy hour – and they’re still getting together now that the kids are starting their sophomore year. It’s genius really, because when you’ve spent enough years suffering the elements on sidelines, you have earned the right to meet inside where it’s dry and comfortable and drink beverages, right? And if groups aren’t your thing, that’s cool. Find individuals with whom to connect. However you do it, get yourself a posse. Because we need each other.

Care packages are a win-win.
It’s not like I had nothing to occupy my time after he left. I wasn’t staring at the wall, thinking “Oh gee, whatever shall I do now?” No, life kept coming at me, and I was as busy as ever, but sometimes when I found myself particularly missing my son, I’d start putting together a care package. It didn’t take a huge amount of effort – I’d put a box out on the dining room table and just add things as I thought of them, until there was enough to send. Care packages are a win-win because it’s fun for us to think of things to include that will brighten our kid’s day, and it’s fun for them because, well, food. And don’t worry about getting it “right” – if they don’t like it, they get to be the hero of their dorm floor by sharing it. If you need suggestions, there are some crazy creative ideas on Pinterest (of course there are). I never did anything too elaborate, because I stink at all things craft-related, and I don’t think my son would have cared anyway. In addition to food, I always put in something funny and a personal, upbeat or encouraging note. I had no idea if they meant anything to him or not, until the end of the year when I came to pick him up and he hadn’t cleaned out his desk. I started opening drawers and emptying the contents into bins, when I came across a stash of every note I had written him during the year, all neatly tucked into an envelope. I looked over at him and he grinned sheepishly, “I liked your notes.”

Celebrate the good stuff.
Amidst all the tearful transitioning, it’s easy to lose sight of all the good that’s also going on. And while some of the best stuff is only visible at a distance, there are little bits that you observe or hear about along the way and go, “Yeah. That is most definitely cool.” New friends, new interests, new experiences – they’re all contributing to the grand experiment that is college, and helping shape them into the adult that they will be. From the mundane lessons like where to get their hair cut, to more important items like where to go when they get sick, every challenge and new experience brings with it an opportunity to grow or learn, even if the only thing they learn is “do NOT do that again.” And if you watch for it, you’ll get the joy of seeing your child grow more into themselves. Celebrate it when you see it, because it’s pretty freaking awesome.

They come back.
It’s easy to slip into the “they’re gone forever” mentality. True, it will never be exactly like it was, but they do come back. When they do, they will bring mountains of dirty laundry and eat all your food, and you will love it. Because they will also bring their new, collegiate, almost-adult selves with them, along with a newfound appreciation for everything “home.” A phrase that I never expected to hear from my son, ever: “This bathroom is so clean!” Yes, apparently a level of disgusting actually exists at which boys will notice filth. Who knew?

So let me tell you this again: you’re going to be ok. Really. As I’ve said before, it’s because you raised a person that you actually enjoy having around that you miss them right now. You’re not neurotic or weak or helicopter-y, you’re human. And humans sometimes have a rough time with change. Give yourself and your family the space, the time and the grace to work through it, and I promise, you will come out on the other side just fine. Maybe even better.

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To the parents sending kids to college

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I’ve never really understood the whole bird metaphor when it comes to kids leaving the house, but it’s all over the place this time of year. Especially on social media, we can’t seem to escape all the lovely, soft focus pictures of perfect little empty bird’s nests, overlaid with sweet sayings in curly font. The exact words vary, but the general gist is, “Don’t be sad when your children leave the nest! It’s because you did your job as a parent that they are ready to fly. You did it! Yay you!”

And if that works for you, if that makes you go, “Oh yes, I feel sooo much better! Now when my kid leaves, I won’t curl up into the fetal position and sob till my eyes swell shut or a vocal cord snaps, because I will be too filled with joy and pride to feel anything else! Yay me!” …then I’m happy for you.

If, however, those sayings just aren’t doing it for you, if they make you question your sanity and general ability to cope, or cause you to look around for something to hit, I want you to hear me right now:

It’s ok. It is.

It’s ok if you’re struggling, because sending your kid off to college – this almost-adult that you have devoted 18 years of your life to keeping alive – is HARD for a lot of us. Last year at this time, I was where you are. Staring at the growing pile of bedding, crates and various dorm room items in my living room, I kept thinking to myself, “I’m not strong enough for this.” And as I feebly tried to sort through all the emotions duking it out in my body, I realized that it’s possible to be proud and heartbroken at the same time. Proud because I had managed to help raise a great human being, who was ready to go off and make his mark on the world. Heartbroken because I had managed to help raise a great human being, who was going to…leave me.

To be clear, this was entirely about me. I never once worried about my son. He really was ready, and I knew it. It’s just that in growing into this amazing, launch-worthy young man, he had also grown into someone I really, really liked having around. And I was going to miss him. A lot.

If you’re a mom or dad who’s tracking with me right now, you also know the next thing you hear – either from your internal critic (please tell me I’m not the only one who has one), or from an external person trying to be helpful: “Don’t be so selfish! This isn’t about you!” Or, “What’s wrong with you? Don’t be so ungrateful! You should be thankful that your kid can even go to college.” These statements do make a good point about the need for gratitude. But gratitude and grief are not mutually exclusive. You can be thankful and still grieve.

And it really is a kind of grieving. Even though you haven’t lost them, you’ve lost the way things were. When change comes like a seismic shift, when the comfort of the familiar is ripped off like a bandage, grief is a natural reaction. Even when the transition is ultimately a good thing, we still grieve change.

Pride and sadness, gratitude and grief. All coexisting in one, crazy person. No wonder some of us struggle.

Now, I do feel the need to add that I know parents who handled this transition with nary a tear. Yes, some were actually glad to see their kiddos go, but most simply accepted it as a natural progression of things and gracefully adjusted. So it’s possible. If you are the parent of a younger child, and reading this is making you think that sending your child off to college will trigger an automatic crisis, just know you could be one of the lucky ones. But just in case…

We have several birdhouses in our yard, and late last July I noticed a pair of wrens building a nest in the birdhouse right outside the window by my desk. I watched the flurry of activity as they prepared, and observed in delight when, after some weeks of silence, the parents’ arrivals to the birdhouse were met with urgent, tiny peeps. As I perused dorm room checklists from my son’s university, I heard each arrival to the birdhouse. As I returned from yet another college supplies shopping trip, I saw wobbly little heads with disproportionately large, open mouths pop eagerly out of the birdhouse opening. When we finally packed up the car with everything our son would need at college, I could tell the babies were close to fledging. And the panicked thought flashed across my already emotionally compromised brain: if they flew while we were moving our son in and I had to come home to not one but two empty nests, things were going to be ugly. Like scary ugly. Thankfully, God loves my husband and daughter, and we returned to find the little wrens still in the house. They fledged a few days later, and as I studied the empty birdhouse, I had to wonder: what happens to the mom when they leave? So much of this bird mom’s recent life has been focused on growing these eggs into babies, and the babies into wrens that can survive in the wild. Their success in the world outside the birdhouse is a testament to her work, but…what happens to her when they leave? Does she busily turn her attention to other work, or does she just enjoy some well deserved rest as she reaches a wing around to pat herself on the back? Or, does she sit silently and simply miss her kids? It just struck me that with so many clich├ęs and cute metaphors about children “leaving the nest,” very little is said about the time after.

So I’m going to say something. Two things, actually. One to all of us who aren’t sending kids off to college this month, and one to the parents who are.

To the rest of us: this is the time of year now when we are surrounded by parents who are going though the process of letting go. I have to admit, I never saw them until I was one myself. And I thought, how have I missed them all this time? They’ve been moving around me, hurting silently, and I’ve never seen them. I vowed then that I would see them from now on, and I would try to love them a little. Or a lot. Now, not every parent wants someone in their face, asking them huge, emotionally flammable questions like, “So, when does your daughter move in to her dorm?” But a little kindness can go a long way with someone who is either anticipating move in day or recovering from it. See them. And try to love them.

To the parents who are about to do this Very Big Thing: it’s ok to be sad. Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t have that right. Yes, you’ve raised a great kid, and yes it is time for them to launch. You can be proud of that and still grieve their physical absence in your life. It’s not selfish to miss them. And I can honestly say, as someone who took it pretty hard, that it does get better. You learn a new normal, and in this new normal you move forward. You’re going to be ok, I promise. In the meantime, however, be gentle with yourself.

I’m working on a Part 2 to this post, talking about the good and bad (mostly good) from the first year. Spoiler alert: it gets better, and everyone survives. And if you want the full portrait of a crazy lady, you can flip back in this blog and read the post I wrote last year, after we sent our son off to school. It only took me a month or so to stop sucking my thumb and start writing again. So there’s that…

Hang in there, friends.