• A Cruel Combo

    August 15, 2017 | Jodi
  • It’s that time of year again… The back-to-school fliers are starting to show up in the mail, stores are stocked up with school supplies, Bed Bath & Beyond has sent out their 20% off for your student’s dorm needs (and their extensive list of all the must-haves that your college freshman MUST HAVE to survive in the wilderness that is dorm living). I observe all these goings-on from a slightly smug perspective these days – my “baby” (sorry, kiddo) is smack in the middle of his seventh college term, which started mid-July. Toothpaste? Check! Shampoo? Check! Shaving cream? Check! Saline solution, Costco box of granola bars, ream of printer paper? Check, check, and check! “Love ya! Have a great term!” It’s pretty much a system now. My first-born has already graduated from college and is a full-on adult now, living on his own and paying his way. It’s truly a beautiful thing!

    But I didn’t feel this way in August 2011 when we dropped Thing 1 off at his college dorm, helped him unpack, then turned around and drove 3 1/2 hours back home. To say I felt like my heart had been torn from my chest would be understating the sensation. This little boy – okay, he was 6’4″ on drop-off day – was still my sweet little baby. He didn’t remember it, but I clearly recalled the days of sitting on the floor, lining up his little cars for “parades,” holding his hand as we walked through the parking lot, rocking him to sleep when he had (yet another) ear infection in the middle of the night. And sitting on the floor next to his crib, stroking his tiny hand as I prayed he would sleep through the night despite his current ailment. It was my job to protect this human being and see him through to adulthood.

    No one bothers to prepare us for what happens when they actually get to adulthood! If we do it well, our kids leave. Yup, that’s the plan. Blood, sweat, and tears, then they leave and don’t look back! Well, okay, it’s not usually quite that abrupt. The transition that often starts somewhere in their high school years may not actually be completed until many years later. But each step is a disentanglement from our helpful grasp. They leave, and we’re supposed to be happy that they need us even less than they did before. Bittersweet – another understatement, right?

    The cruelest part for many moms – the Cruel Combo – is that moms are often right around that age when their hormones shift into reverse. So that hormone-driven teenage angst we just lived through with our kids? We get to experience something pretty similar – perimenopause – going on in our own bodies right around the time when some of life’s biggest challenges kick in. But since we are full-grown adults, we are generally expected to keep a lid on our emotions and not fall apart.

    Rewind to August 2011 – I managed to hold back my tears until we left my son’s dorm room. My recommendation – take Junior to lunch, carry boxes to Junior’s room, make Junior’s bed. Then leave. No tears. Don’t do that to Junior. Junior is dealing with a whole storm of emotions already. Don’t put your sadness on Junior, too. I think I made it about 15 mins in the car before completely falling apart. Like someone had sucker-punched me. I cried. My husband was kind and patient, asking if there was anything he could do for me. “Ice cream… I need soft serve ice cream.” We pulled off the highway, in search of soft serve. I think we added 45 mins onto the trip in search of some soft serve. We finally found some, and it tasted wonderful. But it didn’t fill that hole in my chest.

    When we returned home to Thing 2, then a sophomore in high school, I did my best to put on my happy face around him, but found myself sitting in the house, crying, while he was at school. Thing 1 seemed disinterested in us, but having a great time at college. I spent hours scouring the internet, in search of some wisdom that would help me survive this trauma. I found some forums where moms were describing similar experiences. They helped some.

    Here are some things that might help a mom (or maybe even a dad) in a similar situation:

    1. Start cultivating your own interests at least a year before Junior heads off to college. Having something to immerse yourself in is helpful.
    2. Get out of the house. If you find yourself walking past his/her room several times a day, go outside!
    3. Fresh air and sunshine. These are known to help boost mood.
    4. Exercise. Also helpful in lifting mood.
    5. Find other parents who are going through the same thing. Trade stories. Try to laugh.
    6. Get to know Thing 2 (and Thing 3, 4, 5, etc) if you have younger kids. We came to know our Thing 2 on a whole new level after Thing 1 left the building. Both kids are pretty neat in their own way.
    7. Volunteer. It just feels good to help others.

    And then what happens? Well, for many families, Junior eventually comes home. It may be for Homecoming Weekend, Thanksgiving, or the semester break. Junior has changed – maybe a little, or maybe a lot. Sometimes Junior is a little overconfident, believing he/she is much more expert at “adulting” than they truly are. They are used to coming and going on their own schedule, with few or no rules governing them on campus. How does that work? It depends. There are a couple things that might help to smooth out that transistion:

    1. Be clear on what you expect of Junior when he/she is at home. I had to remind Thing 1 that, yes, indeed, I did still expect him to make his bed every single day. 20 seconds. Tops. Another heavy-hitter might be curfew – I wasn’t a huge stickler on that, but asked to be informed if he planned to spend the night at a friend’s house. I need to know whether to be worried if he doesn’t come home at night. I also wanted to know if he planned on eating dinner at our house, mostly so I was sure to make enough for him, too.
    2. Be flexible. Junior has had a lot of autonomy for many months. Honor that. It’s okay to collaborate rather than dictate at this point.
    3. Keep in mind that you may be more excited to have Junior at home than Junior is to be at home. His/her world is “up at school” now. Remind yourself that this is a good thing. Do you want Junior living in your basement for the next 25 years?

    Finally, here’s what happened to us. Thing 1 came home for Christmas break, and when he left again for winter semester, it was much easier. Then he came home for the summer, and while it was great to have him in the house again, he was bored out of his mind without all his friends around him. He was like a caged tiger. He never seemed that settled and content. And when it came time to take him back to school for sophomore year, I breathed a sigh of relief. I no longer carried the burden of feeling like we were the most boring household in the world, failing to provide him any entertainment whatsoever. Our peace and quiet was just that – relaxed, enjoyable.

    Fast forward to July 2014, when Thing 2 went off to college. He seemed a little more lost than his brother did when we dropped him off. We felt sad for him. But I felt great. I GOT MY HUSBAND BACK!! The next day we took a road trip to my high school reunion. We didn’t have to worry about how the kids were doing without us. They were housed and fed and generally in a safe environment. I’m pretty sure we texted to check on Thing 2 a few times. I missed him, too, once I was back at home. But it wasn’t as crushing as with Thing 1. It has nothing to do with how I feel about my boys – it has everything to do with knowing that there is life after children.

    This is the new normal. I still miss my “little ones,” but it’s really more a wistfulness about that chapter of our lives being over. I enjoy the guys now in their adult skins. I still worry – I was born to worry, as my husband likes to tell me. But I trust my guys to make wise choices, the choices that are best for their futures.