Sending a Son to College – I Didn’t Know It Would Be Painful!

We stood for a long moment at the entrance to airport security. At eight thirty five p.m., the usual bustle of this busy airport had slowed to a trickle of passengers and flight crews tired and happy to be home.  There were also a few travelers preparing to take a “red eye”, one of those late evening flights of last resort when you absolutely need to be at your destination at a certain time.

My tall, curly haired 18 year old was preparing to board a late night flight alone to the East Coast to begin college.  He had traveled on his own last Spring on a decision making trip to choose between two great schools.  But, this felt so different from other times he has travelled.

“Try to get some sleep on the plane going to Chicago,” I reminded him for the third time.

“OK, Mom,” he said gently.

“We’re so proud of you. You’ll have a great time at school,” my husband beamed.

“Thanks, Dad, ” my son grinned.

As Number One Son walked through the airport security checkpoint with his new backpack stuffed to the top with necessary electronic gear, a bag of sandwiches and a pair of underwear and socks (in case his luggage got delayed), I felt a gargantuan lump in my throat.  I looked up at the so very familiar face of my husband. He was struggling with his emotions, too.

Wow, I was having “separation anxiety” and my son’s plane hadn’t even left the airport!  Even though my face was smiling, deep down my heart was crying. Will he be ok?Had I imparted every bit of knowledge and wisdom to him? Was he prepared?

Worse yet, was I prepared? As parents, we forged a  great relationship with our son by keeping lines of communication open, setting clear boundaries and, most important,  keeping a sense of humor. (My secret resource for parent/child humor was reruns of “The Cosby Show.)

Now, the situation that was so easy and comfortable was abruptly shifting — flying away on an airplane to the East Coast. My years of dedicated caregiving had paid off. My son had “made it” into one of his top choice colleges — he worked to get great grades and SAT scores. He polished his essays until they shined.  He was successful in his extracurriculars. But instead of a jackpot, I have sadness, questions and worries.

Did I do my job to prepare him to be competent in the adult world? What part do I play now in my son’s college life?

The “experts” have voluminous advice about letting go. The morning talk shows have been warning about the dire problems caused by “helicopter parents” who continue to control their college students lives even while they are away at school. Certainly, I don’t want to be like that!

The good news for us is Number One Son has been using his alarm clock on his own for quite a while. He knows how to cook a basic meal, clean a house, and do his own laundry.  He successfully managed his homework and outside activities schedule on his own. And yet, he would often solicit my husband’s and my opinions on various decisions before making them. Our son also had mentoring relationships with several of his high school teachers.

Suddenly, our son is away from home and his support system. How is this going to work? Where do we fit in his life now?

 My very astute husband pointed out, ” this isn’t so much about letting go as it is about redefining the relationship we have with our son.” How do we make that happen?

Luckily, I found this great book:

You’re On Your Own (But I’m Here if You Need Me) : Mentoring Your Child During the College Years

The author, Marjorie Savage, has been working with parents of college students for a number of years as the parent liaison at the University of Minnesota. Inside the 12 chapters of this easy to ready book, Savage offers understanding and insights that begin with the summer before college,  and include the culture shock of school (and the corresponding empty-nest upset for parents), the freshman 15, course loads, extracurricular activities,  and life after college. She gives parents an informed and common sense guide to establishing the right level of parental involvement.

I have found it to be a great resource in puzzling out the best way to forge our new relationship with our 18 year old. I urge you to check it out.