When did it happen? When did our kids grow up?
I went from college and my first “real” job to marriage and then babies, who grew from toddlers to teens in a nanosecond. A household where diapers, lullabies, and training wheels turned into thongs, indie rock, and driver’s ed. Who knew I’d long for the days of chicken nuggets with ketchup? For mismatched socks and tiny shoes? For Legos and Barbies and bedtime stories?
Our daughter’s senior year of high school began innocently enough with the subtle undercurrent of change woven throughout the fibers of daily activity. Her senior year kept us busy, and our other daughters had many extracurricular activities as well. The daily busy-ness masked reality and allowed me respite from facing what was to come.
Then it happened. She donned her cap and gown and to the tune of “Pomp and Circumstance” made me proud and broke my heart at the same time. In the blink of an eye, my baby had gone from diapers to diploma!
I was an emotional wreck inside but didn’t have time for a pity party. I had another kind of party to plan. A graduation party. Those party plans kept me occupied and in perpetual denial of the fact that she’d soon leave and life as we knew it would change forever. However, after the party (and it was a fabulous party), I had nowhere to hide. It was time to face reality and start packing and planning for her next chapter—and mine.
When she was a tot, she loved me a lot. I mean she really loved me and couldn’t function unless I was within a four-foot radius of her tiny body. No doors could separate us. Ever. Gone were my days of peeing alone. When I tried to leave the room, she would cling to my leg like a Downy sheet stuck to warm jeans just out of the dryer. I called it love. Dr. Spock called it separation anxiety.
anxiety (noun) a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.
After spending the better part of two decades immersed in raising our children, the separation anxiety was now mine. As my gray hairs multiplied, so did my insecurity—my job insecurity. I’d thought of motherhood as my career, my calling. I’d prepared 14,682 kid-friendly meals, listened to 61 school band performances, and applied 377 Band-Aids for both boo-boos and hurt feelings. For heaven’s sake, I’d even directed the church Christmas pageant. Twice! Suddenly I was terrified of losing my purpose. I feared that my career (and relevance) would be reduced to an occasional text message and an invitation for parent-and-family weekend. My brain knew it was time for her to separate and assert her independence. But my heart wasn’t ready.
For a few days after dropping my little girl off on move-in day, I felt sick. I had no appetite. I was lethargic. I was tired all the time but had a hard time actually sleeping. I went to bed feeling drained and woke up sick to my stomach. As someone who suffers the curse of motion sickness, I can tell you the symptoms were similar. But I hadn’t been near a plane, train, or boat.
Wait, I suddenly thought one day. I need to get a grip! I was confusing motion sickness with emotion sickness. Once I knew emotion sickness was my self-diagnosis, I realized it was up to me to find a cure.
Not every parent gets emotion sickness as I did. And not every parent has the same difficulty letting go. But many still struggle one way or another with the turmoil of conflicting emotions. Sometimes parents who’ve been challenged by rebellious teens are eager to see their children launch, only to go crazy a few short weeks later because the house is so quiet. Other parents think the transition will be a piece of cake, only to find themselves lonely and obsessing over their child’s class schedule, roommate relations, and social life.
No matter what emotions you experience, sending your child off to college is a big change for all family members. Moms, dads, siblings, even grandparents feel a shift. We say good-bye not only to our students but to our familiar, comfortable family routines. What’s important is remembering our babies are not leaving our families forever. They’re just going off to school.
It’s okay to be sad—for a little while. Give yourself some grace. Your child’s adjusting to a new way of life, and so are you.
This is an excerpt from award-winning Out to Sea: A Parents’ Survival Guide to the Freshman Voyage.
Navigate the emotional and practical aspects of preparing to launch your child with real examples, useful tips and checklists compiled from parents, students, and experts on campuses across the nation.
Get yourself a copy of this award-winning book and refer to it often for support and guidance throughout the college years.