Updated: May 30, 2020
It’s been less than 48 hours since I dropped my only child off at college, and nothing went as planned. I’ve been seriously anxious about this moment for about the last two years….I visualized myself sobbing and going into some kind of deep depression upon leaving him. Well, guess what? That’s not what happened at all. Instead, as I looked around the college campus at all the other families going through the same thing, I felt nothing but pure pride in getting to this point. I felt excited about the path he had chosen, and happy for being able to help him make it happen. I felt strong and accomplished in that moment in time, and ultimately I felt grateful as hell that I was experiencing it.
I realized I had made it to the letting go phase of parenting, and instead of feeling empty I felt full. I felt a sense of release and pride that I cannot describe, and I was standing there on his college campus, surprised I was feeling this strong. I realized three things that I am going to share with you in this article. I hope it helps others see that this can be a happy time and a celebration for parents.
1) You’ve Been Training for This for Awhile: As a parent, you’ve had to let go of your child over and over again. Let me name a few really tough times you’ve already survived. You’ve handed your baby over to a nurse or a doctor for them to have blood drawn, endure immunizations, or be taken back to surgery. You’ve left them alone with a babysitter for the first time. You researched and chose a daycare or school at some point and left your child there while you worked. You’ve probably even pep-talked your kid into going to school when you knew they hated going. Those experiences were absolutely gut-wrenching for you, I know, but you got through it and your child survived as well.
I can add a few more that I’ve experienced such as putting him on an airplane as an unaccompanied minor for the first few times, watching him drive to school alone – no longer needing me to enter the carpool line ever again. Another scary moment: knowing he drove on the interstate even though I restricted him from it! Once, I even refused to pick him up from football camp when he called me begging me to quit. I felt horrible because I was the one who had urged him to try a sport he never really wanted to do. (This was not one of my finer parenting moments, but one I lived through. Mom guilt number 10,005, thank you.)
Here's one I'm not feeling so guilty about: I allowed him to go to Europe with three of his friends at the end of senior year for a week long trip he really wanted to take. It was hard, and I was ridiculed by many. “How could you let him do this?” “Aren’t you scared?” “He’s going with no adult supervision?” 🤦♀️🤦♀️🤦♀️ All of those comments, I endured. Nothing went wrong-although of course I know that it could have- but, those experiences for him and for me prepared us both for the big college drop off and whatever happens after. So, there! Sometimes these decisions are just preparing us for the next thing. Be brave, and trust your gut. Sometimes it will go well and sometimes it won't. Don't beat yourself up. Parenting is hard.
2) Trust the Process: As soon as our babies are born, they start to grow and change. We cannot keep them small forever, and we cannot protect them from the world. All of the phases we go through with our babies is just another step in the process of growing up, and we know that we will ultimately have to let them go. We can guide them, counsel with them, redirect them, and help them to navigate life. The process of growing up is a three steps forward, two steps back kind of frustration sometimes, but it is a process designed to prepare these sweet littles for the big wide world as adults.
The process of letting them go to college, or move out on their own is a scary one. So many things go through your mind as a parent – oftentimes all of the things that can go wrong. It’s terrifying! But, they must get out there, get sick without mom being there, make the decision to go to class or sleep in, stay in college or drop out because it wasn’t what they thought it would be, try/fail/try again/fail, etc. Isn't this the process we all go through? Why should your child be any different? The thing is, they will troubleshoot with the skills that you have taught them, and learn to be able to handle life’s ups and downs on their own. This, to me, is part of the process, and when you drop them off at college, it’s time for them to fly on their own and see how they do. This is to be celebrated because you’ve gotten them this far. Yay!!! Good for you! Job well done, parent. Now, quit being so hard on yourself.
3) Perspective: Is it really sad? A lot of people comment, “that’s so sad”, when they hear you’ve just dropped your child off at college, or that your nest is now empty. Sad. Really? No, I don’t think so, not sad at all. Does it feel sad at times? Absolutely. But, the act of letting your child move on without you to the early phase of adulthood is not sad at all – in fact, it is a huge celebration and can be a very gratifying experience if you think about perspective.
I can remember when he was little, praying that I would be healthy and able to see him grow up. Watching him graduate from high school was one of the proudest moments of my life – such a sense of accomplishment not only for him, but for me. Now, dropping him off at college, it’s an even greater sense of pride and absolute joy at the fact that he had chosen a path and was brave enough to give it a try.
To me, sad is losing a child, and I’ve had a few acquaintances and friends who have had to endure this. Sad is when a child has an incurable disease, or when this happens to a child’s parent. There are so many different things that can happen to a parent or to a child that are actually very sad, but dropping them off at college is not one of them. This is actually a great milestone, and the celebration is in the fact that you get to be there for this moment. It does have some feelings of loneliness and maybe a little sadness, but the ultimate feeling is of pride and joy. Perspective. It’s all about perspective, people!
Relish this time for yourself, parents. You are not ever going to stop being a mom or a dad to this child. You will still be there to help support and guide him as he moves forward, but it is now his responsibility to get out of life what he wants. Will he succeed? Will he fail? Who knows? But, you'll be there to catch him if he falls. You’ve spent roughly 20 years thinking about this child, planning for him, making sacrifices for him, protecting him, guiding him, and worrying about him. Now it is time for you to watch what he does with his life and for you to move on with yours.
You will now have so much time to engage in whatever it is that you’ve not had time for in the last 20 years. It may be a project, a trip you’ve been wanting to take, or even a second career – maybe retirement. Whatever it is, this is your time to do it. Do not be sad right now. Embrace this next phase and be thankful that you are here in this moment in time to enjoy life. You’ve raised a whole human, and you’ve done an excellent job. You’ve experienced so much along the way, and now you can be confident that your hard work will pay off as you watch your child go it on their own, in their way, because it is their life to live. Remember: You’ve trained for this, trust in the process, and know it is not really that sad at all.
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