Letting Go – Kicking and Screaming

The whole existence of this blog came from the life-changing event of my only child graduating from High School and leaving for college. I drove him to college two weeks ago, and I haven’t been able to blog about it until now. My heart is shattered. I’m lost. I’ve cried every day. I’m grieving. That about sums it up.

I sobbed as soon as I got in the car to leave. I’d managed to hold it in all weekend, but I couldn’t do it any longer. I knew it would be hard to leave my son at a college over 8 hours away. After all, I’ve been thinking and writing about it for a year. I did not, however, anticipate how the last moments would unfold.

I packed a whole car full of feelings to bring with me on this journey. This trip would culminate my full time job as a mother. I have been raising my son for almost 19 years to become an adult. I hope I’ve done my job. I have been passionate about it. I have taken it very seriously. Sometimes too seriously.

I could not have prepared more for this moment in time. When faced with a new challenge, I always do my homework. I check out every book at the library on the subject, search the Internet for articles, talk to others, join Facebook chat groups to seek out others in my situation, journal my feelings, and research, research, research like I’m preparing to sit for orals for a Ph.D. I’ve done this my whole life and it’s how I raised my son every step of the way. At every turn, there was a teachable moment, and I wanted to be ready. I was far from perfect, but I was trying my best.

My son wanted no advice on what he might need for college or help packing. I wanted to look into any accommodations they might offer because of his health challenges. He made it very clear he wanted a roommate just like everyone else. He didn’t want to be singled out as different. So, I backed off, knowing he could face some difficulties, but realizing he would have to find a way to deal with it himself.

I read some tips on how to help move-in go smoothly. I was not to help him arrange his room or make his bed. I was not to make suggestions. I was to be there if he asked for help and nothing more. I was not to make a big deal out of my emotions. There would be no crying at every turn about my baby leaving. It was suggested that I have a small care package with a letter to give him to open after I left. I did all of these things to my best ability. I wanted to make the weekend a very positive experience and leave with him knowing how proud I was of him. (He did ask for help making his bed – YES!)

The school runs move-in with military precision. He was given a 7:15am time slot to be in line at the staging area for his dorm. As we waited in the line of cars, some students came to greet us and offered to paint the car windows with school colors and slogans. They asked for his name and wrote it in big letters across the rear window. More students greeted us as we lined up in rows to wait for our turn to drive to the dorm. He got his room key and was told his roommates would be moving in at the same time. I chatted with parents in the other cars as we waited. All of a sudden, it was our time to pull out. Our row of cars pulled up to the curb by his dorm. Over a hundred students lined the street clapping and cheering “Welcome!” Loud music added to the festive atmosphere. The students were there to help the first-years move in. They told my son to step back and not to lift a finger. In minutes they had the car unloaded. At the same time, another person told me to stay with the car and directed me to parking. By the time I turned around, all those kids and my son were gone. We were the last ones in line. As I pulled out about all of those kids cheered, waved & welcomed us. So much fun! I honked the horn a few times, and they went crazy! I was in a terrific mood.

By the time I parked and took the shuttle back, my son and his roommates had already arranged the room, lofted the beds to put their desks underneath, and had claimed their space. He’s in a triple, so adjusting to not just one but TWO roommates is going to be a challenge. Since there are three of them, they do have a very nice, large room. There’s a bathroom right next door. My son got busy unpacking. He seemed happy and was pleasant. We met his RA’s, the Faculty Head of House, and even the Vice Provost. We went to get his books and supplies from the campus bookstore, and looked around the quad. Then, I went back to the hotel to rest before dinner and a welcome event with his academic Dean.

On Sunday, I went back to campus for breakfast. My son was in a terrible mood and extremely irritable. He snapped at me the whole time. When I gave him a care package to take up to his room, he rummaged through it saying ‘What is this? I don’t need this stuff.’ I asked about how the first night went he just said, “Fine.” I asked about the floor meeting that first night. Was it fun? “No, it was just a meeting.” He shared nothing about his first night on campus. He also refused to share a copy of his schedule, and acted put out when I asked him to give me his mailing address. Any other questions I asked he would say, “That’s a stupid question; I’m not answering.” He agreed to some pictures before we said goodbye. I told him he could call me anytime if he needed anything. He indicated he would NOT be needing anything. I told him I’d miss him, and I teared up just a little as I hugged him. He said we could keep in touch, but pointedly reiterated not to call him with stupid questions. That’s the last thing he said to me as he walked away.

I knew leaving would be difficult, but I didn’t realize I would be leaving what appeared to be a very unhappy young man. The school offered Parent Orientation and discussed communication with your child. On the schedule for the weekend, it specifically noted the time to say goodbye to your child. Then, we would go to our orientation, and the students would go to their own orientation. We were not to linger on campus, our children would be busy and unavailable.

Orientation was very helpful. All of the parents were in our own headspace trying to keep it together as we listened to the experts. The Residential Life staff focuses on education and helping the students figure out things for themselves. When they call home when there’s a problem, we should just say “Hmmm. I’m sorry to hear that. What are you going to do about it? Well, let me know how that goes!” Tears ran down my face as I sat in the packed auditorium. I was pretty sure I would never get that call. I worry that my son won’t ask me or anyone else for help. There are a ton of resources on campus, but will he find what he needs?

As I sat in my car after it was all over, the pain hit me. The tears came. I was at a loss as to what to do. My expectation was that I would be dropping off a happy kid off on a new adventure, but that’s not what it felt like. Eventually I gathered myself and hit the road.

He didn’t make any contact with me for over a week. What a relief when he finally called. He said he was doing well and talked a little about his first week. I tried really hard to be supportive and not drill him with questions (another suggestion we got at the Parent Orientation). Thankfully, he didn’t sound unhappy at all.

I guess he didn’t know what to say or do when it was time to say goodbye. He may not even have thought about what that moment would feel like. I felt like a failure for raising a man who turns harsh and mean instead of expressing his true feelings. In true fashion, I jumped back into research mode. I learned that it is very common for boys to express themselves as irritated and angry when they are being bombarded with emotions. For someone who doesn’t like to talk about his feelings, he was experiencing so many powerful and conflicting thoughts that it made him irritable. I think he was also afraid of my feelings. He may have been expecting a big scene and didn’t want to have to cope with seeing me cry.

So, he didn’t see me crying, and he may never know what that moment was like until 25-30 years from now when he takes his own child to college. He can never really know what it’s like for a mother to leave her child behind. As I drove, I glanced in the rear-view mirror and saw his name emblazoned across the back of the car. Tears welled in my eyes again. I was putting more and more distance between us as the cord that binds us stretched out for miles. It finally snapped when I stopped for gas and started scrubbing the back window as hard as I could. I couldn’t take the reminder any more. Tears ran down my face as I thought about this new chapter in our lives. With the window wiped clean, I looked at my reflection with the realization that the cord was now severed. The time had come for both of us to make a fresh start and take on adventures of our own. I was left with one thought that I couldn’t help crying out “I’m still your mother, damn it!” Whatever that means. . .

2 thoughts on “Letting Go – Kicking and Screaming”

  1. Well stated Melanie! It has been an “interesting” transition for me with my oldest leaving for college this year, as well as a hard realization that, like your graphic states, I have succeeded. What gives me comfort is that millions of other parents have done the same before me and survived it, and I will too! This grieving will pass.

    Liked by 1 person

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