It’s been a frequent topic for therapy these last few weeks. “My child is leaving for college. Will she be all right? I’m going to be an empty nester. I’m not sure what is next.” These are common concerns and juicy issues to explore. I tell all these parents the same thing: It’s going to be okay. You will probably shed a few tears when you drop your child off. Well, let’s be honest; you may ugly cry. But the tears will eventually stop and you will get a new normal. A different kind of good. By the time Christmas break is over you may be counting the days until he goes back to school and you can get your house back. But if you were sitting in my office and we were having this conversation, I would ask you to do these things:
- Trust your parenting. You did and great job, Mom and Dad! You have poured 18 years into your children. You have made sure they were well cared for. And you have done everything in your power to give them a good start in life. You made sure they ate properly, had regular checkups, you put braces on their teeth and took them to the dermatologist. You made sure they went to the best schools you could afford, either your neighborhood schools or private. You helped them with reading and spelling, and later, you may have paid someone to help them with algebra. You took them to soccer games, dance classes, band concerts, football practice, school plays, and cheerleader tryouts. You sat in the scorching heat and freezing cold, and you cheered them on. You nursed them through ear infections, breakups with first loves, and mean girls. You kissed their boo-boos and tried to mend their broken hearts. You prayed with them and took them to church. You tried your best to keep them out of trouble. Everything you have done for the last 18 years was preparing them for this moment. You may be having a slight sense of panic (as I did) over the things you forgot to tell them. If that is the case, write them a letter and leave it in their dorm room. Tell them the things you wish your 18-year old self had known. And then leave them. This is not the end of parenthood, but your role will change. One practical note: If at all possible, don’t be too quick to hand off their room at home to the next child in line or to convert it into your hobby room. They will want to come home to the familiar for a while.
- Trust your child. Unless your child proves you can’t trust her, back off. Don’t be a helicopter parent. Let hercall you. And when she does call, focus on her concerns instead of the things you are worried about. Give her the grace and space to make a few mistakes. These are teaching opportunities, a time for your child to learn the difference between having a failure and being a failure. It may come as a surprise, but you will no longer have access to your student’s grades. You may think this is unfair, especially if you are the one paying for his college. But because of FERPA laws, this is the way it is. Hopefully you have they type of honest and supportive relationship that will make it easy for him to tell you if his grades are floundering. By now, you should have made him responsible for his own grades instead of constantly checking to make sure he did his work. Practical note: Don’t do every little thing to unpack her and set up her room. Allow her the autonomy to do it her way, even if you think you could do it better.
- Trust this time in your life. This is not the end; it’s a new beginning. Parenthood may have encompassed much of your life, but now it is time for you. Use some of that energy for yourself, to pursue some of the things you haven’t had time to do. If you are married, it is a time to get reacquainted with your spouse. Hopefully you have been nurturing the relationship all along so you are not now finding yourself married to a stranger. But in any case, neither of you is the same person you were at age 22. Try some new things together. If you are single you may be ready to find a new special someone. This is a time to try some new things for you. Take up a new hobby; spend time with friends, and travel (if you still have some money after paying the bursar’s bill).
- Trust your God. This is the most important. Your child has been a precious gift, but he has been on loan to you. It is time to put him back into the hands of the One who loves him even more than you do. Ask God to help you release your grip. God has a plan for your child, but He also has a plan for you. A plan for a new chapter for what the poet Mary Oliver calls your one wild and precious life. And take care of your knees because you will need to stay on them!