When Your Baby Leaves for College: Five Things I’ve Learned about Letting Go

When Your Baby Leaves for College:  Five Things I've Learned about Letting Go
Mitchell and friends walking to class.

Two days ago I dropped my son off at the train station to return to college in a neighboring state. As I hugged Mitchell goodbye, I said to him, “I won’t cry this time.” But I lied. While watching the long, green Amtrak train take my son away–again–a wave of hatred for that snakelike beast washed over me, and as always before, the tears came, but only for a moment.

I thought back to three years ago when he was a college freshman. He left early that first year because he had to work the week before classes started. I felt a little cheated by that! He caught a ride and took only a duffle bag and a guitar because he didn’t yet have a permanent dorm room assignment. I was fine until a few days after he left.

Alone in the house for the first time, grief overcame me, and I cried out loud, wailing long and loud. No one but God witnessed me falling apart. My mother was suffering and slowly (yet way too quickly!) dying from frontotemporal dementia, and even though she was still living, I faced the crushing loss of her companionship around the same time. My tears were for both losses.

A few days later my husband and I brought the rest of Mitchell’s stuff to him after he got his room assignment. After we said goodbye for the second time that week, I cried for about two minutes in the car. By the time we reached the freeway, I was done. I think it would have been much worse if I hadn’t had my big cry a few days before.

Mitchell in front of the house he rented with five friends his junior year.

In a few weeks Mitchell starts his senior year of college. I should be used to saying goodbye to him by now. I counted–it’s been sixteen goodbyes since he first left with that duffle bag and guitar three years ago. I’m grateful I’ve seen him that often! And really, I’m doing fine. I don’t think the tears even rolled down my cheeks this time but disappeared with a quick swipe of my hand as I watched the train pull away with him inside.

The past few years I’ve had to say good-bye to him over and over, knowing months would pass before I’d see him again. In that time, I’ve learned a lot about letting him go:

1. I spent 10 years nurturing Mitchell alone before his little brother joined our family. Isaac has always had to share his parents’ time and attention with Mitchell. This is Isaac’s turn for some one-on-one now, and I’ve been relishing it. I won’t cheat Isaac of a fun, joyful mom because I’m too preoccupied pining over his brother’s absence.

2. I feared that Mitchell would make mistakes, especially since I did too much micro-managing while he was home. Without me there to remind him, I worried he would forget to turn in assignments, miss appointments, procrastinate solving a problem until it became a crisis. But it’s his life now and his consequences. I had to step back and let him manage his own life. There’s not much I can do from a distance, anyway. I had to trust that he was smart enough to avoid these mistakes in the first place or at least wise enough to learn from them. His freshman year of college I checked his email and occasionally reminded him about things I read, but frankly, my life was too busy to manage his affairs, so it didn’t take long before I stopped. I think he appreciated it. (That I stopped, I mean). And you know what? He’s doing just fine taking care of himself.

3. If he’s not calling me, that means everything is going well. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t love me. It means he’s busy and fulfilled. It means he’s building a support system of his own where  he lives. I’ve learned not to call him too much, but I’ve let him know I expect regular communication. Every two weeks or so, I send him a reminder text to call me when he gets a chance. We spend about 10 or 15 minutes talking as he fills me in on his college classes, his work, how he’s feeling, his finances, and the fun things he’s been doing, and I am satisfied.

4. With Mitchell gone and Isaac growing into a greater level of independence, I have more time and space to use the way I want to. I have more time to write now! Yay! I also have a whole room freed up and turned into a guest room where he stays when he comes home for a visit. I keep my children’s book collection in there, freeing up space in my library. I also hang my air-dry clothes in the guest room closet now, leaving my bathroom free of wet delicates. This is what I call a “new normal.” It now feels more “normal” when he’s at college than when he’s home. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE having him home, but it does mean his stuff is crammed into my otherwise serene, uncluttered guest room, and it means less time for myself. It’s time and space I happily give up when he’s home, but I’m also glad to reclaim after he’s left.

5. It’s not about me. This is an exciting time for Mitchell as he grows into adulthood. He’s taking classes to start a career, paying bills with money he earns himself, cooking his own dinner, enjoying concerts, going on hikes, making new friends, navigating a big city. I love it! How could I ever consider dampening his spirit by burdening him with my own neediness? Instead of relying on him to make me happy (never a good idea in any relationship, anyway), I find joy and contentment without him here. He’s happier and more free knowing that I’m doing just fine.

Have you sent one of your kids off to college recently or do you anticipate doing that soon? If you’re a veteran like me, what have you learned? If this is your first, how are you coping with your “new normal?”

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