In one seven year period, I completed 16 college dorm move-ins. Friends said things like “You must be so good at this by now”; my responses were bittersweet. Yes, I learned efficient ways to navigate the local Target store during move in weekend. Yes, I learned that boys need different stuff than girls (mainly because if they run out of whatever, boys are more likely to just live without it than replace it, so I just bought him more of it while I was still there…) Yes, I learned how to unpack efficiently, refold the boxes so they were under the bed for when move out time comes along, and to make sure there were relatively healthy “grab and go” snacks for the inevitable missing breakfast. I also knew to bring plenty of tissues for my purse.
Saying goodbye, whether to a son or a daughter, a freshman or a senior, was always an emotionally fraught moment. It meant leaving a living, breathing part of my heart in a distant location, and believing that the universe would be benevolent. It meant trusting that the judgment and sense I tried so desperately to impart over the first 18 or so years made it through their heads. It meant acknowledging that the everyday life I had been a part of was no longer MY everyday life- it was one that they would live without my daily participation, and that they would share in as much or as little detail as they chose.
It also meant believing that they were in the right place for that moment- a place where there were people with whom they could live the values learned in our home. That they would be encouraged to explore beyond the horizon of familiarity and family, and that this exploration would enrich them and help them grow. That they would know how to ask for help when they needed it, and that there would be people- peers and mentors alike- who would respond in ways that were supportive and appropriate.
I had my own rituals, and my children learned to accept them. I needed to be able to visualize the space they are in, so I needed to see the room “decorated”- posters or curtains or memorabilia displayed in some organized way before I left. I had tobe the one who made the bed: tucking in the top sheet, fluffing the pillow, smoothing the comforter and ensuring there was an extra blanket at the foot of the bed (even if it was 100 degrees in the Midwest that day). Because those are physical acts of loving and parenting that helped me cope with distance. The bed may never look that way again the entire year, but I knew that when they went to sleep that first night, my loving hand had left its mark.
The loving hand began long before this leave taking. As parents we all have our touchpoints and milestones that we remember and cherish. One of those for me was the process of college choice, of selecting the place that I was now leaving. The process was rich and complicated, one that required a sense of tangible and intangible elements. An exploration of who each of my children was, and who they saw themselves becoming. An evaluation of skills and challenges, of strengths and needs. The process for us, like for most families, wasn’t perfect. We had our share of changes in major, of frantic phone calls and even transfers. But if the measure of success is the outcome- fulfilled adults who discover or enhance their passions in an environment that values and validates them, then each college search process has been a success.