5 Things That Don't Change When Your Kids Go To College

by Melissa Tamberg-Heffron
Originally Published: 

It’s that inevitable time of year again. Social media is ablaze with tear-stained posts by melancholy moms whose graduating seniors have just marched enthusiastically across the stage to…total independence.


Last year, it was me suffering a case of postpartum depression 18 years in the making, as my firstborn prepared to venture to college halfway across the country on a baseball scholarship. In fact, the day before Tanner left Southern California for South Dakota, I posted a sappy picture on Facebook featuring a slew of burgeoning suitcases lined against his bed. This prompted some (older, wiser, clearly been-there-done-that) mom to comment about how “exciting” this new phase of Tanner’s life would be. I won’t pretend I wasn’t confused by the remark, if not more than a bit offended. Excuse me? How was this exciting? Well for him maybe! Certainly not for me. My baby was…leaving!

© Courtesy Melissa Tamberg-Heffrom

Trust me, moms, summer will be gone faster than you can say “Finish your vegetables.” And it ain’t gonna be pretty. By all means, buy the jumbo boxes of Kleenex at Costco. Absolutely double-book your calendar to keep yourself occupied those first few weeks he or she will be gone. But then take heart—because the good news is, when your kid goes away to college, in many ways, nothing changes.

1. They still call (or text or Skype or FaceTime). During my freshman year, the one constant in my otherwise unpredictable schedule was the coveted weekly phone call from my mom. Nothing could lure me away from that dorm room landline at 8 p.m. every Monday. Fast forward 25 years, and technology has made it infinitely easier on us folks left behind. I not only exchanged text messages with Tanner almost daily, but he called me at least once a week. Even better, on Sundays during football season, we shared hours of Skype time. (OK, so technically, my screen was pointed at the television set so he could watch the Chargers on our local telecast, but it was bonding time nonetheless.)

2. They still fight with their siblings. When Tanner left for college, I didn’t think it would be possible to miss the nonstop bickering between brothers at the dinner table. But the first night our family convened for a meal around his vacant seat, I found myself longing for the magnificent normalcy of that relentless squabble. Not to worry—less than two minutes into our first dinner over Thanksgiving break, it began anew. It’s not as if I expected the conversation would be all rainbows and unicorns (OK, maybe a few rainbows would have been nice), but was it too much to ask that the boys allow me to swallow a single bite of sirloin before slinging a “Shut up, douchebag” across the table?

© Courtesy Melissa Tamberg-Heffron

3. They still raid your refrigerator. And cupboards. And garage freezer. And anything else they can get their mouths on. Regardless of whether your kid studies at a state school or matriculates at MIT, no matter how you slice it, caf food is still caf food (for you newbies, that’s short for “cafeteria”). And by all accounts, it’s pretty gruesome. From lukewarm lasagna to bland burgers, your kid will suffer through his fair share of heartburn-inducing buffets. Which is why the fluorescent light within the refrigerator is a beacon beckoning their intestines the moment they walk through your door. It’s made me wonder if researchers have gotten the dreaded Freshman 15 wrong all these years; perhaps the pounds are packed on not at school, but on visits home?

4. They still need you. When Tanner’s truck refused to start in -2 degree wind chill, it was me (1,700 miles away) he called for help. (“Open your wallet. Remove your AAA card. Dial the number.”) When he was obligated to sell two dozen overpriced candles as part of a baseball fundraiser, he relied on my pleading post on Facebook (and the subsequent generosity of my friends) to meet his quota. It doesn’t matter how far away they may be, when the going gets tough, the tough still turn to Mom.

Likewise, I was the first phone call he made after blasting a home run at practice. And when the third-base depth chart was published with his name at the top. And when he made an “A” on a particularly challenging English essay. No distance can erase the fact that you’re still your kid’s biggest cheerleader, and the one they want to celebrate all of their achievements with.

5. They still come home. Let’s face it, things could be worse. They aren’t moving abroad or (gasp!) getting married. I mean, the “gone” spectrum is wide when it comes to children leaving the nest, and in the scheme of things, heading to college represents a mere baby step. Most of them will be back under your roof by Thanksgiving; some will return the first time they run out of clean underwear. And before you know it (really!), they will show up on your doorstep with giant garbage bags overflowing with unwashed towels, sheets and clothing—their charming way of announcing “I’m home for summer!”

And while in many ways they are the same, somehow, they are also strangely different. Wiser, wittier, braver, more grown-up, more independent. (Or wait, is that us?) It’s all part of that new and—OK, yes, maybe a little bit exciting—path they are navigating toward adulthood. And taking us along—kicking and screaming at times—for the ride.

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