Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Case of September Sadness: the Melancholy of Leaving your Child at College

It was one of those moments that you don’t see coming, but stick with you forever. I was walking through the campus of my younger daughter’s college, her at my side. She had come back early for some training and the campus was yet to be filled with the screams of reunited college girls with long ponytails and flip flops, or the din of music echoing out of someone’s  open window across the quad. Anyone who has been to college knows the  timeless sounds to which I refer.  It was just a quick walk across the too quiet campus to drop off a form, but for a moment -the quiet hum of insects wafting through the air, the sun bouncing off the stone buildings making them glitter in the golden haze of afternoon-I knew I would remember her like this as I left her for her sophomore year.  Pony tail swinging, talking animatedly with her hands, explaining her plans for her  dorm’s hall, her reunion plans with her besties, and reflecting on her summer romance. It was as if she fit perfectly in this space, this time, this moment…. And sadly, I did not. This is her place, her enchanted campus, her 4 years of infinite possibilities. I knew that moment when I left- just like that- her friends,  her campus, and her school life would fill the void of my leaving.

But what would fill the void of her in my life?

 I have been dropping my girls off at school since they were 14. Both attended boarding school.  Both went away to college.  I even have one in grad school 3000 miles away from me. You would think it gets easier. You would think I have the whole “good-bye” thing down-pat.  I do not. You would think that, especially as someone who deals with this for a living, I would be full of advice and wisdom that makes it easier. I am not.  The moment that they walk away still saddens me to the core.

 It used to be that I watched my girls walk back into their dorm, waited until the door closed behind them, and then drove off. I would snap pictures of them walking away from me and onto their big adventures. I would post them on Facebook with a positive remark such as “off for a new year!” or “have a great year!” But what I really wanted to say was “wait, come back! I miss you already. The house is too quiet. The table too empty. The refrigerator too full.”  Now, they are dropping me off at the airport and driving away as I stand on the curb of the terminal hoping for a last glimpse of a smile or wave.  But it’s the same goodbye, regardless of method.

 I am not alone in this sadness. It happens around the world this time of year. A collective heavy sigh from the moms who just yesterday were driving carpools to cheerleading camps, horse shows, dance recitals, basketball games, toddler play groups.   I see their melancholy posts of clean, newly-arranged, dorm rooms, tee shirts with “proud <insertcollegenamehere> mom.”  I see their pictures of over-packed SUVs, dorm fridge strapped to the roof of the suburban, pillows smashed against the windows, and I feel a certain bond with these College Moms.

 As a college counselor, I tell my soon-to-be college parents that the adjustment to college is harder for them than their child. I tell them what internet applications are best for communicating, how to let students figure problems out themselves. I tell them to not call for the first few days, and not to visit until parents’ weekend.  I tell them all the skills that all the experts tell you are important for successful transitions to becoming an independent, integrated, college student. What I don’t tell them is the heartache that happens when you drive away from campus. Every. Single. Time. 

As a mom, I have no words of wisdom, except to say, this is survivable. From the moment they come home from the hospital, we have all dreamed of this day. We have given them the skills and the behaviors to become independent thinkers, community activists, movers, shakers, leaders, scholars, adults in training.  We show them how to overcome adversity, transition to new situations, problem solve. We teach them how to make their beds, do their laundry, live responsibly.  We keep them on the narrow path which leads to success in college and in life. We give them the ability and dreams to want to leave us, and the knowledge to know that they can always return.  We give them the ambition and permission to become part of a community in which there is no room for us.  Our job as moms led to this point.  The pain in our hearts is a physical sign that we succeeded in raising good kids.  

I know I should be offering sage advice in this blog about college admissions. I know that there are many topics I will cover in the future which are timely now. But I also know that this time of year is full of that happy sadness as we watch our sons and daughters walk away from us on the campus which is now their home.  

 Our only choice is to go home, pick up the detritus left behind in the flurry of last-minute packing. Clean their bathroom, wash their towels, change their sheets, and know that Christmas break is only 12 weeks away.
lovingly dedicated to all my friends who suffer from September Sadness this and every year.- KCB


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