Transitions: Taking My “Baby” to College

In mid-July, my son receives his email from the Student Affairs and Enrollment Management Office outlining their complicated and lengthy protocols to safely bring new and returning students to this university campus in August 2020.  

Suddenly it’s real. After four months of shutting down, staying home, washing hands, wearing masks and being really careful, my 18-year-old is preparing to move into a dorm and start college with thousands of other students.

My heart lurches in my chest – this is my baby – heading off to college in a pandemic.  He’s had enough disappointments this year – cancelled high school musical, cancelled Spanish trip to New York City, cancelled theater workshop, cancelled prom, cancelled typical high school graduation. He’s philosophical but also cynical, the cynicism protecting future potential disappointments, and he muses, “ Isn’t it likely that just as I settle down into college life, this too will be cancelled by sending students home?”

It’s a bet he’s taking, after considering a gap year, and his father and I respect his choice.  And since he’s planning on going, our task is to help him shop for college necessities, to enjoy these last weeks together as a family under one roof, and to hold sorrow and excitement in some simmering stew in my heart.

I remember my dad and mom driving me to college in 1980.  I was the last of three daughters to go and the college I chose was 350 miles from home.  I remember being irritated and embarrassed that my mother cried; what was the big deal?  Now of course, I understand.  Boy do I understand.  Already, tears well up at odd times – tears of pride that he’s an honors student and going to the school of his choice. (And only one hour away!) Tears of sadness and fear.  I know how much we’ll miss him.

Transitions are hard.  Many of us like routine, predictability, and stability;  when those are shaken, we get shook up.  Add the current pandemic, the racial protests, the erratic and unpredictable leadership from our elected officials, and this transition has the potential to really rock the boat.

Here’s what I’m doing, to the best of my ability, in this transition:

  • Maintaining the routines and practices that help sustain and ground me – still rising early for meditation, exercising and working in the garden, then getting enough rest and connecting with friends.
  • Doing my best to prepare for the transition while also knowing that I won’t think of everything.  There will be bumps, emotions will swell.  I’ll figure it out.
  • Soliciting support from family and friends; we’re all in this together when it comes to transitions.
  • Giving myself time to process emotions – to feel joy, excitement, sadness, fear. Allow them to be, knowing they will ebb and flow and eventually quiet down.

Someone turned the calendar on the side of the fridge to August.  Viscerally and immediately, more anxiety kicks in.  I know that underneath is grief, joy, worry, hope – the whole lovely mix of emotion.  I remember this when my daughter left for college. 

Most of the “stuff” on the “what to bring to college lists” has been purchased.  We’ve got a move-in day and time and by 2 pm in two Sundays we’ll be driving away, leaving our 18-year old in his dorm, ready as he can be to start school in a pandemic.

He continues to go about his summer routine:  moving lawns and working at a local pool.  Lounging in the living room recliner as he plays a game on his iPad while also listening to something on his phone.  Vacuuming the house every week, washing up the supper dishes every night. Hanging out with friends, socially distanced, of course, and ordering takeout.  Drawing some.

I find that I cannot fathom how quiet and different the house will be without him here.  How weird it will be.

Greg does a few final fun activities with friends, transfers his mowing jobs to his dad, and buys a few last things.  Then he begins a week-long required quarantine before arriving on campus next Sunday.  We plan a final family evening with a take-out meal of his choice.  I refrain from telling him things that are my anxiety, not his,  “Don’t let your laundry sit in the washer, don’t forget to order your books, are you sure you don’t want to take a fan?”

Sleep, or rather, the paucity of it, tells me I’m grieving.  I’m more than grieving.  I’m happy, sad, scared, excited.  We’ve been planning for this for a long time. 

Courtney Martin, who writes a terrific blog called the examined family, says this in a recent post about sending her 3-year old back to pre-school following months of quarantine and social distancing:  “We’re just like that, us humans. We can have more than one emotion at a time. In fact, as my daughter was reminding me, we mostly have more than one emotion at a time. Especially during times of transition and trauma. We are grateful to be free and weirdly miss our confinement. We are in love and filled with loathing. We are generous and selfish, independent and so needy, wise and dumb as a box of rocks. Growing and regressing, empowered and resentful, so brave and so scared. All at once.”

Yup.  Even though he’ll come home on breaks, and this year it’s possible he’ll come home even earlier, I know from sending my daughter off four years ago, that it’s never the same.

But for now, the reality of my last child, my 18-year old son, leaving for college and next steps in his promising life, are registering in my body, my emotions, my mind, and in the daily tick tick tick of days as we march toward move-in day.

And now…

I already miss him, his essence, his presence, the way he flops down on the recliner with his phone and iPad, his intensity in philosophical conversations, his smile, his willingness to do the dishes every night without complaining.

Move-in went fine – first stop a Covid19 test, and then a quick unload/make your bed/snap a photo – parents were only allowed a half hour in the dorm.  And then we were driving away and we all started a new phase of life.

The Monday after drop-off I woke early, early – unable to sleep any longer, so aware that he wasn’t here, so pleased he gets to start college, so full of mama-emotions and also relief that we are freer now to do the next things in life.  I’ll be sad for awhile; I remember this with my daughter.  And the sadness will hang out with acceptance, and joy and hope and a bunch of other emotions I’m not sure how to identify yet.

He did it, and we accompanied him.  (And yes, he does need a fan!) Nothing is certain, and it wouldn’t be even if Covid19 were eradicated, but the virus heightens the uncertainty.  He’s taking it one day at a time and so are we.  In the meantime, our home feels diminished, it’s quieter, muted, and that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be.

Brenda Hartman-Souder, August 2020

Sheryl Paul, on her website Conscious Transitions, writes terrific blog posts about transitions.