August 25th, 2010

Parents and college freshmen: the long goodbye

Colleges are increasingly feeling the need to gently nudge parents of incoming freshman to take their leave of the campus, lest the older generation take up residence more permanently there, the better to breathe down the necks of their offspring.

Freshman orientations at many colleges now often include a schedule that specifically mentions that the rest of the activities are for students only. Some have even instituted staged and formalized ceremonial leave-takings.

It seems that the current crop of parents are so heavily involved with their children that it’s hard to say goodbye. Years of arranging playdates and chauffeuring and tutoring for college boards create a situation in which going away to college looms almost as large an empty nest watershed in parents’ lives as the subsequent marriage of their offspring eventually does.

Of course, if the economy continues on its current course, they may see their grown-up children again in four years, up close and personal, as they move back home with mom and dad (or mom or dad, or mom and mom, or dad and dad, or mom and stepdad, or dad and stepmom, or…you get the idea) in order to save money.

But for the parents of college freshman, that prospect seems far away. What’s real right now is the wrenching goodbye that looms large and closer. Family therapists refer to it as “launching,” and know that it can be a huge turning point for parents who find it hard to let go.

And, lest you think I’m insufficiently sympathetic, let me just say that I found it a hard rite of passage, too—both as a seventeen-year-old college freshman, and as an (age-undisclosed) parent of an eighteen-year-old college freshman. The first occasion left me standing in a virtually empty dorm room, facing a roommate who was a total stranger, and with a sinking, empty feeling, knowing almost no one at the college I had chosen seemingly at random, in a far-off town in a far-off state. I made friends soon enough, but the memory of that day has never left me.

Nor have I forgotten saying goodbye to my own wonderful son (and only child) on a beautiful sunny afternoon, standing on the campus of another university, in another time and place. That leave-taking also coincided with the end of my long marriage—and both my husband and I knew it, adding to the poignancy.

There were no ceremonies except hugs, and then the turning and walking away, knowing that now we needed to trust that all the love and care we’d placed in our son would bear fruit once he was on his own.

And you know what? So far, it has. But the tears we shed that day (and tried to hide) were not for him; they were for us.

38 Responses to “Parents and college freshmen: the long goodbye”

  1. Scottie Says:

    After we walked my daughter to the first day of her first grade class today, the wife was in tears before we ever left the corridor.

    She’s gonna be a mess when the kids start college.

    So will I.

  2. texexec Says:

    I remember my oldest son tapping his feet impatiently not being able to WAIT until I left him in his first dorm room with his new roommate and on his own.

    Guess that was good, indicating he was able to be independent. He’s turned out well although, living in Austin, he and his wife are our token family liberals.

  3. Donna B. Says:

    My children did not start off college so far from home that weekend visits were a difficulty, so I guess I didn’t get the full version of the experience.

    Or maybe I started to let go earlier, so it was experienced in phases. I was much more emotional when they got a driver’s license and then for one, a pilot’s license.

  4. Gloria Says:

    I guess I come from a generation that had a different culture. We were happy to see our children grow up and be independent from us. Becoming an adult by living on your own (even though it was in a dorm room) was a demonstration of our children’s competence and an omen of a good future.

    Of course there was a twinge of regret that childhood and teenhood was over. But that was far outweighed by pride in one’s child, who was now able to “stand alone.” I think it is a bit pathological to cling too much to one’s adult child–needing to keep him or her in a kind of infantile state. I can’t sympathize with these helicopter parents who hover over their children; it’s wrong because it really shows a desire for parents to keep control over their children.

  5. Stark Says:

    Helocopter parents are indeed short sighted and selfish. Such parents do not understand the problems that they often create by not encouraging independence and self-reliance in their offspring. Freedom is a precious gift that each parent should give their children when they are old enough to function on their own.

  6. Artfldgr Says:

    I cant wait… in four or five months reality will have sunk in and the undergrads chattering like high school will be quiet again… its a special time for me… like having a second set of seasons to follow and enjoy…

  7. AGA Says:

    But the tears we shed that day (and tried to hide) were not for him; they were for us.

    Absolutely agree! My wife experienced “it” during the weeks/months leading up to the big day, but “it” didn’t hit me until I pushed the garage door opener to park the car in the garage after the 2 1/2 drive home from the university. I was just struck with the realization that our oldest, eighteen year old son wasn’t coming back that day, next week or even the next month. I was overwelmed with a sense of loss and more than a little depression. Everywhere I turned, whether it was thinking about embarking upon a lawn/garden project, watching a tv show or ball game, planning a vacation, I was reminded that I would be doing it without him and it really didn’t seem like much fun. Of course, three days or so later, I made new friends in his younger siblings and got over “it”. Now, one year later, I am looking forward to his going back to school so our lives at home can return to what is now viewed as “normal.” (Having a college teenager home for the summer is, at times, like having a strange man in the house who eats your food, drives your cars, argues with you, your wife, and your children stirring up controversy because he thinks its his house, and he has a better way to run things.) In short, “it” for me, was realizing that I had lost a relationship that I really treasured, the true value of which I didn’t realize until it had ended. I have a great relationship now, but its different, and sometimes I miss the way it was.

    My wife, as I said earlier, experienced “it” earlier than I and over a longer period of time. I began to notice her looking at me with an expression suggesting that she was reflecting upon something. I also experienced comments from her that I initially reacted to quite negatively. She would say things to me, out of the blue, like: “You need to get in shape,” “you’re the heaviest you’ve ever been,” “we never do anything fun anymore” etc. It took me a long time to figure out, and for us to confront, the reality that in a few short years, all we will have is each other at home. So much of our relationship for the preceeding 18 years was focused upon our children that she wondered, even worried, whether we had a relationship without them. The good news is that we do and we will, although I do have to lose weight and, frankly, I might not. 🙂

  8. Askmom Says:

    I agree with Gloria. It’s always been true that the real test for a good parent is to make yourself unnecessary, and at the appropriate time. The payoff is later – when a now-adult child feels truly independent and secure in their own life, they will come back as a special kind of friend. Still, I understand tears and have shed plenty myself. To see your children become better people than you is the ultimate bittersweet treat!

  9. Jimbo Says:

    My wife and I had fertility problems and eventually adopted a baby boy. As Chris got older, we wondered what the empty nest life would be like when our only child left for college. Then, when Chris was in high school my wife became unexpectedly pregnant and at the age of 40 gave birth to twin boys. We couldn’t wait for Chris to leave and now the twins are in high school. If they decide to go to a local college then I will have them home for another eight years. If one goes to grad school, then my wife and I may never know what an empty nest is like. So for those who fear the empty nest syndrome, fear not, just have more babies! Nothing keeps you younger than having a kid in college while two others are in kindergarten.

  10. br549 Says:

    All three of mine are grown and gone now. I have one out in in grad school on the left coast.
    Being a single dad and raising the three of them alone, I experienced something I did not realize a man could experience. Empty Nest Syndrome.
    After watching as many episodes of NCIS and Bones as I could handle, I hit the door. Oh my God! I’m free again!!

  11. LisaM Says:

    After miscarriages and infertility, I had a baby at age 41. He’s 9 now, and last week I cried while watching Toy Story 3 when Andy left for college. I should be a total wreck when my own goes.

  12. LibertyAtStake Says:

    My parents put me on a bus. I think I’ll be more compassionate, I’ve grown soft you know – drive ’em there and kick ’em out of the car at the curb.
    “Because the Only Good Progressive is a Failed Progressive”

  13. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

    Look at the helicopter parent anecdotes from another angle. As colleges take less-and-less personal interest in students and more kids see school as The Five-Year Party (new book), parents are compensating. Their kids really are being thrown to the wolves, and they know it. And they’re spending big for the privilege.

    We’ve done it four times now, this saying goodbye at college. Son #2 went to the same college as his older brother and sister-in-law, who had just graduated and lived nearby. Son #3 went to a Baptist school so remote and conservative I knew he’d get in less trouble there than at home. Son #4 lived in #2’s apartment. All those eased our anxiety. And all four sons had been on brief foreign missions with groups that didn’t include us, so we’d gotten some practice.

    But our first son was going off alone, and it might have been more harrowing but for the circumstances. We had just traveled in England for two weeks, sitting in each others’ laps, then drove down in a van together for two days to Asbury. Everyone was quite happy to say goodbye to each other, thank you very much. The summer after high school is given by God to make you quite willing to part. Not until he came home for Thanksgiving, suddenly older, more responsible, and easy to talk to again, did we feel the sadness when he had to leave.

    One more son to go.

  14. Vieux Charles Says:

    My Dad spent his 19th birthday as a young seaman on the deck of the U.S.S. Bunker Hill.

    He went to school first on the GI Bill, then on an ROTC scholarship.

    I spent my 19th birthday as an Air Force SP in a frozen foxhole in Gwangju. South Korea.

    That was years ago. I now have an advanced degree in Computer Science, every single college credit earned going to night school – room, board, books and tuition all paid for by me.

    My two children are both Dean’s List Biology Majors, now both Seniors at a state college. I make too much money for them to get financial-based scholarships.

    I paid for their first two years of school. They’re paying for the last two. They both work. They both commute.

    I’m not a “helicopter” parent. You see, young adults “going away” to college isn’t the norm – it’s a rare priviledge. A priviledge few have the means to afford.

    And this whole “launching” thing – you know it can mean a lot of different things to different people.

    My brother, for instance, went away to school. My parents paid for it. 30 years later I’d say he still hasn’t “launched”.

    Conversely, my son “launched” at the age of 20. That’s when his first patient died while he was working as a CNA at a local hospital.

    Sorry if I’m depressing anyone, but this whole societal obsession we have with institutions of higher learning is IMHO naive, myopic, and elitist.

    I’m not trying to judge, it’s just kind of a sore subject for me. Thank you for letting me share.

  15. Baklava Says:


    You have a way of writing that keeps me yearning to come back every day.

    I’d have to say I’m in love with your brain ! 🙂

    It is guaranteed that it will be worth my while to come here to read what you have to say.

    There are days where I’m swamped at work and yet I make a point to come here for a break.

    And there are nights… like tonight where I’m lonely and sad and your story touches me.

  16. James Drake Says:

    I had great opportunities to experience precollege science summer programs while in high school. When it came time for our son to start thinking about college we encouraged him to do the same, to see if the computer science he thought he had his heart on was really something he would pursue when facing tough competition. It was, and he did, showing a lot of initiative and maturing a lot by doing so.

  17. Army Mom Says:

    We have 2 in college and 1 in the military. All three kids were raised to be independent and able to take care of themselves (they know how to cook, clean, wash laundry and balance their checking account) when they got to the right age. So, now we are able to know if we raised our children well and it seems that we did.

    We just dropped our youngest off at a college that is 600 miles away from us. It seemed to us that about 10 minutes after we got to her dorm she was ready for us to exit. But she has let us know that she really does miss home and us. #2 son also in school has moved into an apartment and is relatively financially independent but he does like to come home to hang out. #1 son in the Army still calls us from Afganistan and is starting to get his resume ready for when he gets out of the military early next year. He wants to move close to us with his new wife.

    I think the measure of sucess for us is that all of our kids are starting to leave or have left home but are also very happy to come back and be around us. When I compare that to the fact that when I left home, I never went back because I did not want to be around my overbearing parents…I think that we have done well and I am very proud of my kids.

    I can not understand why some parents seem to think that their kids have to be babied and micromanaged even when the kids are old enough to take care of themselves. I know of lots of parents who view their grown kids as well…little kids and want to keep it that way. To me that is doing a great disservice to your children.

  18. Scottie Says:

    I think there should be a distinction made between missing your kids and being overprotective or “helicopter parents”.

    IMO you can raise a child to be independent – but it doesn’t mean you’re still not going to have that feeling of loss or sorrow when they move out into the world on their own.

    You spend 18 years taking care of someone, starting out by doing absolutely everything for them from feeding them to wiping their ass as you change their diapers, to staying up holding them and rocking them all night long until the fever or tummy ache passes, up through wiping their noses and encouraging them to climb back onto the bicycle and take another shot at learning to ride it, up to consoling them when their little heart is broken, through handing them the car keys and praying fervently under your breath that you did a sufficient job instilling in them a sense of good judgment in driving – and finally watching them strike out on their own into a world you know is full of joys, opportunities, and danger.

    So even though you can do a great job of raising them to be self sufficient and independent minded – you’re still gonna miss them when they are not there every day after about 18 years of constant – though varying (and hopefully decreasing) levels – of parental care, guidance, and oversight.

    But then again I’m sure you all know I’m a big softie…lol. 😀

  19. Sergey Says:

    It always struck me as unnessesary cruelty this institualized need to abruptly cut ties with children when they became grown up. A traditional family with 3 generations living under one roof is much more humane and even more conductive for transmission of knowledge and culture from one generation to the next one. My eldest son is now 39 years old, he is a bachelor, and he still lives with us. My daughter stayed with us during her university years and only after her marriage she moved to separate home. Even this was felt as a loss for us, especially for my wife. The present crisis in US society was somewhat precipitated by this tearing of young people from their parents and their embedding in campus culture with traditions often quite opposite to family values. If freshmen could live with their parents, the whole madness of 1968 could never happen, and liberalism would never played its destructive role in american life. There is some dysfunctionality inherent to strictly nuclear family, and human psyche feel pains in adapting to it. It simply was not created for this arrangement, and nothing in evolutionary history of humans prepared us for it.

  20. ALP Says:

    What is it with the New York Times and their obsession with kids that can’t grow up?????

  21. Scottie Says:

    Sergey does bring up an interesting point.

    We spend the better part of two decades doing our best to instill proper values and beliefs in our kids – but then send them off to an environment where they are completely exposed to alternative ideas – ideas we may vehemently disagree with – and without any mitigating influences within that environment.

    I’m not opposed to the exposure to alternative ideas of course, but the fact that the young adult is immersed into an entire sub-culture that may hold values opposite to what the young adult was raised to believe can easily undermine whatever values were instilled into them earlier in life.

    For example – and I’m not saying current college life is to be stereotyped as this, it’s only an example – suppose the young adult has the misfortune to be assigned to a dorm that is composed mostly of students who think there is nothing wrong with smoking pot?

    It’s a message that would be in their face for a long time, and as no negative repercussions occur that young adult would begin to wonder why the parents were so against something that is (to them) obviously not that dangerous, they now have friends who smoke it without negative repercussions, and perhaps become curious enough to try it themselves.

    Perhaps they had a girlfriend who encouraged the young adult to try it, simply so she is not toking all by herself?

    Then of course there is the entire teenage thing about fitting in with the crowd, compounded with exposure to the idea of instant gratification, that if something feels good then it should not be considered bad, hey it’s the college years and you should *experiment*, etc.

    That’s a lot of peer pressure to overcome for someone who, though technically an adult, is still trying to establish their identity independent of their parents and is doing so in an environment that may be sending messages and applying influences the parents would never have approved of had they known about it.

    Not sure what can be done about it other than do the very best we can in raising the kid when they are younger to not be so easily influenced by such things, but still it’s a lot to overcome.

    The immediate rewards for fitting in within that kind of environment are going to be seen as far more enticing than delayed rewards for hard work years later.

    Perhaps that is why the universities seem to be the primary source of each succeeding generation of liberals?

    You have a combination of future high paying jobs (due to greater education levels) combined with an environment that potentially undermines values instilled earlier in life, and the whole ride being paid for by someone else.

    That’s quite a combination.

    Ok, put me down as not only a softie – but also a worry wart…lol.

  22. Scottie Says:

    Oh, and before anyone reads too much into my previous post – my intention is for both my kids to go to college.

    I definitely understand where my own parent’s gray hair came from…..

  23. Sharon Says:

    We have 3…sending the first off to college, even though she was living in the same city (L.A.), I knew she was leaving home permanently. I cried all morning, first during Mass, then intermittently. Not because of the negative reasons offered by Gloria,, but because of feeling the full measure of “18 years ago we brought home our first infant, and now she will be on her own”. It’s part of dealing with the progressions of life. Nothing wrong with it.

    Our 2nd lived at home until he was 25 and left for the Marine Corps. I cried for 2 weeks there…even though I knew it was right and good and I embraced his course of life. I missed him, like someone misses a good friend or any close family member living nearby. Of course we adjust, but again, what’s wrong with dealing with the reality that the paradox of sorrow and joy can exist side-by-side?

    The 3rd…and our baby…we left him at a college 90 miles away. He and I both cried the night before we parted…again just coping with the paradox, and giving expression to our true emotions.

    All are well-adapted, decent people. That was our goal….mission accomplished.

  24. I R A Darth Aggie Says:

    I’ve grown soft you know – drive ‘em there and kick ‘em out of the car at the curb.

    What? you’re going to come to a complete stop? you have gone soft.

  25. Random Thoughts Says:

    Such good heartfelt comments! Sergey and Scottie’s back and forth particularly resonates with me, and this bit is brilliant: It always struck me as unnecessary cruelty this institutionalized need to abruptly cut ties with children when they became grown up. A traditional family with 3 generations living under one roof is much more humane and even more conductive for transmission of knowledge and culture from one generation to the next one.

    Then again, I shudder to imagine living with not only my own parents but my grandparents as well. That would not have been pretty.

    When I left home for college, I packed up my personal belongings and never lived with my parents again. Heck, I didn’t even spend the summers at home. I’d spent nearly 18 years longing to get away; returning was unthinkable.

    Fast forward to the 21st century, where I and my husband are now the parents. Three of our children chose to attend college and pursue careers far from home (the fourth and final child is still in middle school). I encouraged them to pursue their dreams, even though it was so hard to see them go. Of their own choice, they come home every summer and often choose to spend vacations with us. They have close relationships with each other, and are outstanding adults, highly moral, independent, compassionate and resourceful. One is now in the Air Force, one is a chef, and one is on her way to becoming a teacher.

    The difference between them and me? I like to think it was giving them good parenting and a firm knowledge that their parents are always there for them.

  26. neo-neocon Says:

    Scottie: your 9:23 AM comment is spot on. That’s the point I was trying to make. It’s only human when one parents feel the tug of sorrow at the good-bye, even though we know we have to do it.

  27. Retread Says:

    Years ago I read an article that talked about how many parents feel when the first child goes away to college: you’ll worry if he eats decently, studies enough, drinks too much. You’ll live for his phone calls and the first time he’s home again, often the Thanksgiving break. But you’ll notice he talks of friends you don’t know and activities at school and teachers you don’t know. He’ll go back to school and the parting this time will be a bit easier. Then comes Christmas and you’ll be glad to see him but not his dirty laundry and the dishes he leaves around the house and the chores he’s not interested in doing. Finally it dawns on you: you’re looking forward to the end of his break so the house can get back to normal. Mission accomplished.

  28. neo-neocon Says:

    Sergey: it’s definitely a cultural thing. American culture prides itself (or used to, anyway) on individualism. Just think—a great many people who founded this country were young people (teens, or people in their twenties) who left their home countries and their families behind, and crossed an ocean in a time when leaving meant they would almost certainly never see them again. Now, that’s striking out on your own!

    Not that such an attitude doesn’t have consequences. It does.

  29. neo-neocon Says:

    Baklava: why, thanks so much.

    That makes it all worthwhile (writing this blog, that is).

  30. Baklava Says:

    worthwhile is the word of the day.

    You have a purpose in my life 🙂

  31. Sgt. Mom Says:

    My daughter enlisted in the USMC, at the age of 18 and went away to Basic Training the following September. I took her to the military in-processing center very early in the morning, watched her being sworn in – and then I went to work. When I got home, there was a message for me from her on the answering machine – she was about to board a flight to South Carolina with the other enlistees for that day. My mother was certain that I would be on the floor, howling with grief at walking into an empty house … but all I could think of was how short that 18 years had actually seemed – was that all there was to the heavy-duty, hands-on parental lifting? The only big task left to me now (theoretically) was maybe to organize her eventual wedding.

    Oh, and she did eight years in the Marines, and came back home to live with me while going to college. I want to get myself one of those tee-shirts that says “It’s not an empty nest ’til all of their stuff is out of the garage.”

  32. Vieux Charles Says:

    Sgt Mom,

  33. Justthisguy Says:

    Sgt. Mom, please tell Corporal Blondie that I think y’all are both still hawt, and that she shouldn’t hunt me down and kill me.

  34. Sgt. Mom Says:

    (blushing girlishly) Thanks, Charles and Guy – you are so gallant, the both of you!

  35. Sergey Says:

    Neo, I agree that this is cultural, but it seems you overestimate American exeptionalism. In England they do just the same, and were doing it long before Columbus. Public schools, boarding schools is a distinctive English tradition, and such institutions “launch” children not in 18, but in 11! Individualism is not a specifically American, but a general Anglo-Saxon trait. It is absent in Germany and Italy or in Mediterranian, where family ties are much more strong.
    Most people who built America leaved their parent countries not because of their individualism, but because they fled religious or ethnic persecution, famine or extreme poverty. Pilgrims were not a bit individualists: the founded a communa of a very socialist nature. Every wave of immigration was caused by conditions very far from normal, and I see no reason to recreate this abnormality in a rich, affluent country. Except this “cultural” thing, of course: Anglo-Saxon obsession with extreme form of individualism.

  36. neo-neocon Says:

    Sergey: yes, I wasn’t meaning to say that America was the only individualistic country. I agree that Britain has a somewhat similar tradition, although I think this country is even more so (except for the schools; Britain is definitely more extreme on the schools, but I believe that is pretty much limited to the upper classes, if I’m not mistaken).

    But I disagree with your assertion that individualism was not a factor in emigration here. Yes, religious freedom, economic opportunity, all were part of the reasons for coming here. But, to clarify, the more individualistic people were the ones who made the decision to cut bait and come here, and leave their families behind. It was a selection process.

  37. Peter Says:

    When it’s time for my two-year-old to head off to college, I suspect I’ll be one of those parents who wants to hang around as long as possible. Not out of over-protectiveness, but because I’ll secretly hope that if I stick around long enough, they’ll let me stay and *I* can go to college again…

  38. AesopFan Says:

    Picking this up on a repost.

    I can still see my youngest son as he went into the church toddlers’ class for the first time on his own, prepared for a bit of separation anxiety (his, I thought; as he was my fifth, I was looking forward to sitting through a whole Sunday School class without interruption for the first time in 10 years).
    But he just lifted his hand and waved, called out “bye mom”, and took off for freedom with his new buds.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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