Your Child's First Day at College
The moment you've alternately dreaded and anticipated for years is finally approaching—your son or daughter is getting ready to move away to college. There were times—when you were battling temper tantrums, cleaning up messes or dealing with teenage social angst—that you might have thought this day would never come. But now that it's here, you're not ready to let go!
When your child leaves the nest, it may seem like your life as you know it is over. But it can be a new beginning for you. Whether the big day is weeks or years away, you can start preparing now to deal with the grief and excitement of your child's newfound independence, and make a plan for this new chapter in your life.
Understand Your Emotions
Family therapist Cathy Brody, co-author of Renew Your Marriage at Midlife, says that parents can be blindsided by the range of emotions they feel when their child leaves home. "We worry about them. We're afraid for them. We want to protect them," she says. "We're excited. We're envious."
While this array of emotions can come out of nowhere, Cathy says many women forget that separating from their children is a lifelong process. "From the moment when children are born and that umbilical cord is cut, we start this separation, this process of separating from our children, and it is so hard to really realize that they are separate beings from us," she says.
But Kristin Clark Taylor, author of Black Mothers: Songs of Praise and Celebration, says the moment you say good-bye to your child doesn't have to be full of grief. "If anything, it should be a moment of untold joy," she says. "Even if you're saying good-bye with little tears misting in your eyes, let those tears be some sadness, but let them mostly be tears of joy."
Make a Plan for the Big Day
The house might never feel emptier than it will when you come home after dropping off your son or daughter at their dorm—so make plans to do something to distract yourself.
When a mother named Maureen sent her oldest daughter to college, she says she cried for three days. Then a week later, she had to face another separation when her triplets started kindergarten. Rather than facing an empty house for the first time in 20 years, Maureen had a plan for her triplets' first day of school. She threw a party for herself, making sure her friends would be there when she returned from dropping them off.
After dropping off her youngest child at college, Cathy Brody and her husband took a two-month road trip. "It was a great idea. We had not been together alone without children for 21 years, and it was a delight," she says.
Create a Diversion
As you settle into your new daily routine, Cathy says it is important to recognize your feelings of grief and loss. But at the same time, keeping your mind on other things can help you to cope. "While we're diverting ourselves either with family support or social support, at the same time we need to make sure that we are acknowledging the feelings that we have," Cathy says. "We really do need to fill our lives and fill ourselves with a sense of well-being and purpose, and I think that's really a key."
Evolution of a Mother's Role
Because your child won't be at home every day, it might seem like you are no longer needed as a mother. But Cathy Brody says you are not abandoning your role—you are just changing it. "We're becoming more of a mentor, somebody who can really provide information, and a role model … for our daughters and our sons," she says. "We can be a role model on how people do continue to grow and evolve and develop."
Revolutionize Your Life
Embrace this new dynamic by taking steps to improve your own life. Cathy says this can be an opportunity for you to set an example for your children through volunteering, going back to school or changing careers. "To me, this is really an opportunity for us as women," she says. "It's probably one of the most exciting times—as well as the saddest time—but one of the most exciting times in our lives."
One mother, Barb, prepared for her daughter Erica's departure for college by planning to enroll in school herself. "We have been working on this for years, really. I knew it was going to be hard, so I made this whole plan to go back to graduate school and make a career change and find really fulfilling work," she says.
Cathy says it's also important to think about how you are going to deal with your new life emotionally. "Just like we prepare for retirement, I would really encourage people to do an emotional plan for when your children leave home," she says.
Cherish Every Moment
Before you have to say good-bye, take time to notice the precious moments in your children's lives. Kristin Clark Taylor says paying attention can help you to capture memories of your kids as they grow up. "It's important to be mindful of all the stages that your kids go through, whether it's watching them fall asleep at night or when you see your child putting on her first pair of toe shoes," Kristin says. "And you think, 'That moment isn't going to happen again.'"
Barb says she and her family made it a point to celebrate milestones of her daughter Erica's last year at home. "[I] just talked to my kids a whole lot about it and acknowledged as we went along, 'This is going to be the last home soccer game. This is the last time we're going to do this or that,' and we kind of would mark those moments," Barb says. "I think that really helped us go through it."