This strange thought occurred to me when I was making a list of all the stuff I was going to need to send my son off to college: where’s the college shower?
When a child comes into this world there is the baby shower, where experienced parents and a caring circle of friends pile on the onesies, the diapers, and the advice in preparation for his or her arrival. But when that very child (now young man or woman) leaves the nest for college there is no communal ritual preparation. The, now, older parents really don’t have a clue about this transition either, even with the “equipment list” on the college website.
Why focus on the STUFF of college anyway? Because everything else is out of your control. Let me repeat: Parents, you are not in control, and the glare of our sons’ and daughters’ independence is oh, so blinding. So, we compensate by focusing on the supplies as though their lives depended on having the perfect bed comforter, the perfect bathroom caddie and the perfect dorm rug; as though their success in college, in life and in love depended on us sending them with a full complement of plastic bins.
This can be a tough transition for even the most prepared parents. It is time to help, while respecting your child’s autonomy as the adults they are. This could very well be a “fake it ’til you make it” situation in terms of treating them as adults even when they do not always seem like adults, to you at least, my dear parent. You, and they, will grow into this new way of interacting. Remember, young adults need space to grow just like an aquarium fish. Let’s think about this as moving our little fishy out of a perfectly suited 20 gallon home aquarium into a magnificent 100 gallon aquarium somewhere far away from home. We all hope they won’t get gobbled up by another fish, but we’ve got to let them move into a bigger environment or they will never grow.
Back home things may seem different now that one of your children has left for college. There is less noise, less clutter, less milk to buy and no need for his or her favorite snacks. You may have snarled every time you tripped over their shoes, but now the shoe-less floor means something is missing. This is a loss and with any loss there is mourning. Take time to mourn what is done, but make room to be open to a new relationship with your son or daughter. This is the beginning of an adult relationship that requires respect, autonomy and mutuality. Give it to him or her and ask for it in return.
The family dynamics at home will change, but families who are flexible and open can adapt. Be aware of burdening your son or daughter with your struggles with loneliness, parental conflict or loss. It is important to acknowledge these feelings and to talk about them with a friend, your spouse or a family member. If your feelings are overwhelming and persist for more than a couple weeks talking to a therapist, such as a clinical psychologist, can help with the transition.
The night before we took my son to college, it hit me, “this is the last night he will sleep at home.” Of course that’s not true, he will sleep on those sheets again and drop his clothes on that floor on many school breaks and summers to come. So why the despair and mourning? I will wash those sheets again. Why is there heartbreak? He is happy and successful. I finally realized that to care for another human being for 18 years has been a gift to me. I didn’t want to give up that privilege. For 18 years I have been able to make a difference in someone’s life in small and large ways, in tangible and intangible ways, in silly and meaningful ways. This seems to be the biggest loss of all. I just didn’t want it to be over. However, as parents we must either adapt to their growth or risk stunting the relationship with them.
Here are a few ideas to help yourself through this transition and help grow the relationship with your daughter or son.
- Familiarize yourself with the university or college’s policies on sharing information about health care and grades and discuss how you can have appropriate access to this information. Remember your child is an adult now and has a legal right to privacy.
- Negotiate a plan for regular communication whether it will be by text, phone or Skype, and give weight to her preferences, not yours.
- Keep his room or place in the home unless the family needs it for other members. Even still, make sure he has a place to come home to.
- It will likely be many years before she vacates the house completely. Don’t throw away her stuff. If you need the space box it up and keep it for her.
- Don’t make a shrine to him. Recognize that your life must involve more than your child’s accomplishments. Life goes on!
- Pay attention to your other children. They are going through their own adjustment.
- Take a moment to congratulate yourself and your spouse for all the work you’ve done to help your child achieve this milestone.