by Connie Matthiessen
Like so many parenting milestones (including childbirth), taking your child to college for the first time is not the least bit uncommon — but it’s still breathtaking when it happens to you. This fall, I experienced it times two, since both my sons started college at the same time. (One took a gap year after high school.)
Everything about the experience was bittersweet: helping them shop for all the things they’d need now that they’d be living on their own, arranging get-togethers with friends and family to say goodbye, helping them pack. A lazy family day at the beach, and a dinner at our favorite Chinese restaurant.
My older son was ready: he’s been working for the past year and was looking forward to being back in school. My younger son, however, was dreading the end of summer. He changed the subject whenever I tried to talk about packing or registering for classes. All his friends are heading off to different colleges, and he was the first one to go. He savored every summer moment: barbeques, parties in our basement, camping in the mountains. He put off the reality of college until the very last minute.
The day before our very-early-morning flight, he finally began sorting through his things, packing his bags. And for all my fretting, he was packed in a flash: he took lots of books and very few clothes — he even agreed to leave behind a beloved pair of old, tattered shoes and buy some new ones.
Then there was the 4 am wake-up, the rush to the airport with too many bags, the flight, getting to the college, finding the right dorm room, and the ritual trip to the big-box stores for sheets and towels and desk lamps. As I helped them move in and get settled, I felt the deluge of emotions: proud of their accomplishments, wildly happy that they would finally get to experience college, and so very sad to leave them behind. When I was with them, I kept it together; but one night, alone in my hotel room, I started crying and couldn’t stop.
It’s been said many times: from the moment your child is born, your job as a parent is to help them get ready to leave you. During my two days there, I kept thinking (the way parents do) about how far they’ve come — through the Legos, Magic Cards, skateboards, two timid and furtive guinea pigs optimistically named Flame and Matrix, the soccer tournaments, the attachments to beloved teachers, first girlfriends, and the grueling process of college applications.
Maybe that’s why it can be so hard for parents to realize what our kids are capable of: because we carry our images of their younger selves around in our heads. By the end of my two days at the college, I became aware of how much mom advice I was dispensing: You should go to the career counseling office to see about jobs. You should talk to your advisor about changing majors.
Our last meal together was breakfast in the college dining room. It was a gray, drizzly day, with a reminder of autumn in the air. My younger son still looked a little like a deer in the headlights; during breakfast he received several messages from friends back home. I couldn’t help myself: I said something about reaching out to kids in his classes and his dorm, and he said, “Mom, I think this is something I am going to have to figure out on my own.”
He was right, of course. Only a little teary-eyed, I gave them one more hug and headed for the airport. It was time to begin my own new adventure.Follow @CMMatthiessen