How To Say Goodbye To Your College Freshman (Without Losing It)

by Maureen Thom
Originally Published: 
Dad saying goodbye to his college freshman

Any parent of a graduating high school senior knows that Spring is looming. The longer days and warmer weather remind you that the long goodbye is getting closer. Your baby, who is now around 18 years old, is getting ready to move on and can’t wait to “get out of here” (referring to the home you’ve painstakingly built for the last 18 years).

I have some advice for you; feel free not to take it. Feel free to disregard it, but read it, because you are super close to a day when your little one, the little one that is driving you crazy testing your limits and pushing your boundaries, is a few months away from actually leaving. Say it again: actually leaving, like gone, moving out, you won’t be seeing their face every day anymore.

The pride you have in their accomplishments, the love you have for their fearless spirit is about to be tested in the realest way — and guess what mom, it’s time to show up. It’s time to mom-up and help them leave. I’ve been there. I’ve done it. I’ve given the hug and the pat on the back and said “I’m so proud of you. Now go make friends and do great things” and then ugly cried the whole way home in the car with my husband asking “are you okay?” over and over again.

The answer is no, you won’t be okay, and you know what, you’ll never be the same again. From the moment you drive away, your life will change. Your normal will be different. It’s time to calm down and realize that life changes. Families don’t live together forever and that’s super sad, but also super normal. So let’s prepare for it and really “Straight A” this my-kid-is-moving-out thing.

Here are five quick tips to survive your child moving out:

1. Help them pack, but don’t do it for them.

Seems simple right? But you will be amazed at what they forget and what they don’t think they’ll need. So, carve out some time to go over the list from the dorm that spells out what you need for toiletries and then take them to Bed, Bath & Beyond and Target for a shower caddy and shower shoes. New towels, yes please, because the dorms are gross and new towels can make a mom feel better. New towels can make you feel like your little one might be able to survive there. So buy them, fold them, and pack them. Feel free to cry a little here too, because honestly, no more wet towels for you to find on the floor of their room. It’s a win mom, take it. You need wins right now.

2. Love the lists. Embrace the lists. Be the lists.

If you can check all of the boxes on the lists, you’ve done your job. Universities love lists. You will get “packing lists,” “bathroom lists,” “dorm room lists,” and “approved appliances lists” (not kidding, my daughter goes to UC Berkeley and there was an approved environmentally-friendly appliances list). Follow the lists. Check the boxes. It will make you feel better. Trust me, it’s good. Do it.

3. Talk about money.

I wish I could say, “Have one thorough conversation about monthly budgets and you’re done” but, honestly, my 20-year-old gets the “where are you at with your spending” talk four times a year. Budgeting money is hard but super important. Remember, you are building a human being here. This is hard work — help them and talk about money. The more you talk about it, the better. Make it normal. I’m 50 years old and I’m still pretty bad at budgeting funds.

Life is expensive and even the most responsible, frugal kid wants those horrible striped overalls for game day. Those aren’t in the budget, but they should buy those anyway because game days pass quickly and should be enjoyed. Teach them to share clothes with their friends. Teach them to say “no” when the budget has been blown too many months in a row. But also teach them to invest in today and have fun in the moment. Being present is so important and if the $40 school color striped overalls mean you’re strutting into the local fraternity on game day feeling like a million bucks, then they’re worth it. Skip the Chinese food for dinner this week and make your own coffee for the next couple of weeks to get back on track financially. Own these moments. Time moves quickly.

4. I’m your mom, not your friend.

I hate this one because it’s way easier to be a friend than a mom. You love them with a hearty, bone-deep kind of love they won’t know until they have their own kid (or step kid or adopted kid, or a neighbor kid that is just too great). Be the mom. Say “no” and call them out when they’re being a jerk or a bully or a wimp. We all screw up. We all fall down. We all have moments when we are on top and using our power a little too publicly. Calm them down. Shut off their credit cards and call them out for bad grades.

College is their job for the next four years. You are their supervisor. Host a one-on-one and go over their performance every couple of months. They will roll their eyes and sigh heavily. Let them. It’s not about your popularity. It’s about raising a decent human being, the kind that will leave this world a better place. Breathe mama, you have to do this for them. They need it. The planet needs it. Bust out your Google Calendar and schedule a one-on-one, a “lessons learned” or whatever you want to call it. But do it; they need you.

5. Look them in the eyes and say “goodbye,” tell them they can do this and walk away like you are okay.

A friend told me that walking away felt like they left an arm or a leg behind. A major body part was missing from their being. It’s true. Prepare for it. The pain is real and deep and a total killer. Ready yourself, perfect your stance, and do it, say goodbye. They need you to stop hugging them first, so practice letting go. They need to see you’re ok. Fake it. Smile. Tell them you know they will be ok too. Tell them how proud you are, then get to your car.

I didn’t breathe once on the walk from the dorms at UC Berkeley to my car. I achieved an Olympic record for holding my breath, but I knew she was watching me. So you can accept your Academy Award for stoic behavior later; for now, enter into survival mode and smile all the way to the car. Your new normal is calling, lean-in to it. You’ve spent 18 years training them and mentoring them. The time is now. Let’s see how they do. The holidays are right around the corner. They’ll be home soon.

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