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 clichés 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.

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College

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Hello! You thought I’d forgotten about you, didn’t you? Not a chance. Not. A. Chance. I love, love, love that I have this awesome army of support, people who care about me and want to stay current on the status of my health circus. I, for one, am kind of tired of it. Really. NOT that I’m asking for more excitement (that is actually my internist’s stated goal: “No new diagnoses.” I think it’s a good goal.) I just get tired of talking about it sometimes, because there are other things that are far more interesting, that’s all. So, let’s get the updates out of the way quickly, and then talk about other things, ok? Ok.

  1. Cancer stuff: next scans at Mayo will be in December. Getting all of it set up took the usual umpteen phone calls and arguments, but I’ve come to expect that now. I wouldn’t be surprised if very soon they put a note on my chart: “Just give her what she wants, it’s easier.” Actually they probably already have a note on there, it’s just very likely not repeatable. I’m still getting the Avastin injections, but they’ve been stretched out to every 8 weeks now, which is lovely (the 8 weeks in between, that is. Shots in the eye are not).
  2. Rheumatoid arthritis stuff: my rheumy upped my meds, since they weren’t working. I am now taking so many pills that I have an app on my phone to remind me to take them, which my family adores. If my phone ever goes for a swim in the toilet, I won’t wonder why. But it’s effective, and the meds are working relatively well, so we’ll call it good for now.
  3. Hip stuff: I graduated from physical therapy about a month ago, and the hip feels awesome. I’ll find out at my one year appointment in January if I get to run again – fingers crossed! (I was going to try to be cute and say legs crossed, but that usually means something else…)
  4. Nutrition stuff: Wait, what? Yeah, the newest addition to Team Jen is a nutritionist. We’re just trying to figure out how to best manage my RA, since my oncologist doesn’t really like me taking the heavy duty meds for that, and also trying to eat like someone who doesn’t want their cancer to spread. So as part of that, I’m currently in the later stages of an elimination diet to figure out my food intolerances. Not fun, I tell you, but it’s for a good cause (that’s what I kept telling myself anyway). But seriously, “elimination diet?” Individually those words are awful enough. Put them together and it’s a recipe for severe crabbiness. For real. I went to Chicago and didn’t have a single slice of deep dish pizza. NOT ONE SLICE, PEOPLE. If you know me, you can imagine, and I’m sorry to put that mental picture in your head. You probably can’t unsee that.

So what else has happened since my last post? Hmmmm…well, we took our oldest to college for his freshman year.

Oh yes, that.

It was very hard. And I’ve been trying to figure out why I haven’t been able to write about it here. I thought initially that maybe I was just being chicken and didn’t want to feel sad like that again. To write about it is to crawl back into it, to wrap it around my shoulders and feel its weight. Or maybe, it’s the fear of coming off as shallow or overdramatic. I mean, this is a blog that started as a Caringbridge site, after I was diagnosed with cancer, for crying out loud. I could end up dying from the stupid thing, and I’m going to whine about my kid leaving for college? Seems a little warped. And embarrassing really, because with all the serious problems in the world, it seems like a petty thing to complain about. Or maybe I was hesitant because I am acutely aware of how fortunate I am to have a kid who is healthy and well-adjusted enough to leave me and go off to school. All valid possibilities, but in the end I think what’s been stopping me from writing about Riley leaving for college is simply that I felt like I needed to learn some kind of lesson from it first. A sort of moral to the story. That is, after all, how writers tend to think of stories: “What’s the point?” And it’s definitely the way I’ve processed just about every event in my life: “What have I learned here?”

So what have I learned here? That’s the problem, I just don’t know. I’ve learned that it is infinitely harder than I thought it would be (and this is coming from a woman who cried her way through her son’s senior year of high school). I’ve learned that dropping your kid off in a strange place and then getting into your car and driving away feels unnatural. So does setting the table for three people. And that without a teenage boy around, food actually goes bad in your refrigerator.

I’ve also learned that I’m not alone in this experience. In those weeks surrounding move in, we somehow cosmically found each other, these other moms and I. It’s hard to describe, but there’s just a sadness, a weary smile or slump of shoulders that seems to be an unspoken code word for “Yeah, I’m there too.” I have hugged more women I don’t know in the last few months than I have probably ever. Hugs are our secret handshake, entrance to the club of “You too? I totally thought I was messing up royally because I’m so sad about something I should be happy about.” Ok, long club name. Too long, so scratch that. But the overwhelming relief of discovering other women going through the same emotions is huge. The mom of one of Riley’s best friends called me a few days after she dropped her son off, and I could tell she was testing the waters: “So, how did move in go for you guys…?” She asked casually. I let her off the hook immediately, “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, to be honest.” As I went on to tell her how I was struggling, I almost felt my hair move from the force of her exhale over the phone. “Oh good! I mean, it’s not good, but I thought something was wrong with me. I’m so glad you’re having a hard time too.” After countless variations on that conversation with multiple other moms (and a lot of hugging), I am finally reasonably certain that it doesn’t matter where we fall on the mom-o-meter, or where our kids fall on the kid-o-meter; taking your kid to college for the first time is just hard. Period.

I remember when we dropped Riley off for his first day of preschool. As he leapt out of the car and gave us a quick wave before bounding exuberantly toward the school entrance, I started to cry (you’re sensing a theme here now, aren’t you?). Rich looked at me like any husband does when his wife randomly bursts into tears, with a mix of amusement and fear. “It’s just preschool, Jen.” “I know,” I shot back, “But I feel like we just set him on a moving walkway. It’s started. And we can’t slow it down or pause it.” Rich nodded soberly and kept driving, because that is what you do when your wife has completely lost her mind. That, and stop for a latte, which he also did. He’s a smart man.

Fast forward 15 years or so, and the moving walkway has indeed failed to stop or slow. After we got him all moved into his dorm and had made the requisite Target run for things we had forgotten and/or didn’t realize he needed, we took him out for dinner and then finally dropped him off back at his dorm. We said our goodbyes (and by the grace of God I mostly managed to hold it together), and Rich and I got into the car. As I watched Riley walk toward the dorm entrance, I couldn’t help but see that joyous preschooler, oh-so-ready to begin the next, big thing. And that damned, invisible moving walkway, carrying him toward it.

And here’s the most maddening thing about all of this: it’s good. I can’t indulge in even the teensiest sense of tragedy, because what’s happening is, in fact, wonderful. My kid gets to go to college. He worked hard and got into an excellent school that will prepare him for a bright future. And he’s doing great, by the way. Still trying to figure out how to simultaneously be an engineering major and have a life, and still texting me with questions every time he does laundry, but he’s learning and growing. He’s figuring out who he is and how he is, what matters and what doesn’t. He’s well on his way to becoming his adult self, and he is precisely where he needs to be to make that happen.

But it’s hard having him gone, I’m just going to say it. Technology is a wonderful thing, and it is largely responsible for the fact that I’m (outwardly) sane. But I miss having him around. My friend Sara perhaps said it best: “Really? So this is our reward for raising good kids? They leave us?” She went on to eloquently describe the bittersweet aspects of sending a child to college, but I, of course, appreciated the sass more. We’ll save eloquent for another post; today, I’m just being real. And I really miss my kid. No technology can replace just having him here, drumming on everything, making jokes, playing with the dogs, bugging his sister, scrounging though the fridge with a mildly frustrated, “What can I have to eat? I’ve had everything!”

Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t been reduced to sitting in a corner in the fetal position, rocking back and forth and sucking my thumb (that was only the first two weeks, silly). Rich, Tessa and I have settled into a new rhythm now, just the three of us. And Riley is very good about staying in touch, so it’s not like he’s out of our lives. It’s just different.

Maybe that’s what I’ve learned: that sometimes the good changes can be hard too. We work so diligently at making the best of crappy situations, perhaps it’s surprising when we find ourselves challenged by something that is actually good.

And it is good, I know that. I’m grateful every day for both of my kids – the one I have to text, and the one I get to annoy in person. Missing people is the price we pay for loving them so deeply. I know I wouldn’t love my kids any less in order to be spared the pain of them leaving, but that doesn’t make the process any easier. Change can be difficult, even when it’s for a good reason.

As always, thanks for joining me on the journey. It’s nice to have company. Onward and upward, friends.

(And On, Wisconsin! 😉)