When My Oldest Moved to College

I sat there, going over my list again. I wanted to be absolutely sure my oldest, Mr. 19, would have everything he needed for college. I’d been preparing myself for this moment since before he could walk or talk, knowing that children are only children for so long and that eventually even the littlest of birdies would leave the nest. It’s funny, because when he was six, he used to curl up in the Papasan chair I kept in my office with his Beanie Baby collection, and tweet at me while I worked on papers for classes. He called the chair his nest, and his stuffed animals his “birdies.”

And here we were, thirteen years later, long past the time when it’s acceptable for a child to want to snuggle, with him with his head on my shoulder and me sharing blankly ahead. It had all gone so fast! How did it go so fast? How did 19 years just fly by? I half-joked, “You could always go to college here.” We both laughed and then he headed upstairs for one more sleep as a full-time resident of our home. We’d packed as much as we would be able to safely fit into the van for this trip, and it would be a long drive with me navigating for my husband the next day.

Just the Two of Us

For the longest time, I was a single mom. We had each other’s backs. I would let him stay up late and play board games on a Friday night. We’d go and check out the local bowling alley together when we got too bored around the house. I’d drag him along to a coffee shop where I’d meet friends to study or I’d head for a change of venue to write. It felt like it was the two of us against the world, and I had my lists. Oh, I had my lists.

Lists of books to read, lists of things to teach before he went off to college and out into the world, lists of must-have childhood experiences, lists of places to go, lists, lists, lists. When I pulled him out of public school in second grade to homeschool him, the lists multiplied. I had lists of subjects and lists of topics within those subjects, I had lists of field trips, and I had lists of college requirements.

And Dad Makes Three

When I met my husband, I had no idea that he’d be my husband. We quickly became friends. It was my general practice to not introduce people I dated to my oldest. I had no intentions of dating my now-husband, so he quickly became part of the circle. And we quickly fell in love. When we moved in together, my husband asked my son how he felt about him becoming his stepdad. My son responded, “That’s great! But lose the step. You’ll just be my dad.”

And so it went. He gained a dad; my husband gained a son, and we continued our board game adventures, now adding three-player games into the mix.

A Few Siblings and a Lot of College Prep

My oldest returned to public school in 8th grade, and quickly made it clear that he had big dreams of going off to college. I’d been preparing him for it since he was little, so it was no surprise to me. He fell in love with a small school in Iowa upon receiving a brochure from them advertising their school when he was a freshman. It’s funny, but that’s exactly the one place, other than the local university, where he applied, and not only did he get in, he got in with scholarships. Senior year became about me wrapping my mind, more and more, around the fact that my tiny sweet baby had now grown into a young man and soon he would be off, making his own life for himself.

What it's like when kids go to college | Raising World Children | Parenting | family | Empty Nest

And Then it Hit… Like a Horseshoe to the Face

I was preparing myself all summer. He had his first real part-time job at the grocery store. He was very busy. We tried to play as many board games as possible, watch movies together, have him spend as much time as possible with his three new younger siblings.  We had shopping for dorm essentials on the calendar, and then it happened – we got a call that he’d been accepted into a special program that would have him leaving for college a week earlier than what we’d planned.

I may have fallen apart just a little bit. Instead of getting to spend time with him as had been planned, I now had to say goodbye a week earlier – and we wouldn’t get to see any of the welcome to college events that the school had planned.

It felt like someone had thrown a horseshoe directly to my face. The moment I’d been preparing myself for for 19 years was coming earlier than expected and in a different way than expected, and as anyone who knows me knows, I don’t do well with the unexpected.

We drove to his school, had a tantrum-filled dinner as his send-off, and though some may disagree, we opened a bottle of wine and let him have a glass. He was embarking upon a new journey (and I wanted him to know what a little bit of alcohol felt like in his body in a controlled environment before peer pressure and college parties kicked in). We got his much-needed dorm room supplies, and helped him move his belongings in. We hugged. He walked to the dorms and we pulled out of the parking lot – with me in tears. I would be missing his birthday for the first time ever.

The Hot Mess Phase

I had planned all sorts of things when we got home – starting my 3 1/2 year old’s pre-kindergarten work, lots of fun toddler activities, sewing projects and blog tours. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t sew. I couldn’t teach. I could just sit and stare and maintain. It didn’t help that I was also fighting off postpartum depression from the birth of my now 6-month old. I didn’t show up for my self-imposed runs in preparation for the 5k I’d signed up for. I didn’t write other than to keep my paying clients satisfied with my work. I didn’t tend to the house or laundry. I cried. I cried a lot.

Nothing in the 19 years of being a mom prepared me for the depth of grief mixed with pride and excitement that I would feel when my child launched for college. Of course I was happy for him – here he was – he’d done it; he’d made it. But I was completely taken aback by the sadness I felt knowing that my oldest – the one I’d done a lot of growing up with – was now an adult and although he’d come home for holidays and perhaps summers, he was out on his own.

Pulling It All Together

I continued like this, putting together care packages, counting down the days until Thanksgiving break, when we had the chance to go visit him for parent’s weekend. We went up. We got to meet his girlfriend and his roommate. We got to see that he was happy and doing well and navigating this whole adulting thing pretty well.

I felt less sad and broken on the drive home after. He was doing well with his debate team, doing well with theater stuff, doing well. He wasn’t being all work and no play – one of my biggest fears for him. He was getting out and being social with his classmates. I was able to relax. I was able to come home and do more and start to get back to where I was at the beginning of August.

Know that if you’re child is heading off, it will be a change. Things still don’t feel right. I struggled with Halloween and decorating for it this year. It was hard to feel like I wanted to do my usual go-all-out for the holiday thing that I do, but we still had fun. Know that you’re not alone. A lot of people feel this way when it comes to adapting to the change.

I still get out an extra plate and bowl for him if I’m tired and serving dinner – because I’m on autopilot, and for 19 years I also worried about making sure he ate and was well. I couldn’t be prouder of him. I also couldn’t be counting down the minutes until Thanksgiving break more excitedly.

Have you had to say bye to your little one all grown up? What was it like for you?



Freelance writer and entrepreneur Ronda Bowen has been publishing articles on a variety of topics including parenting and education for the past decade after leaving a graduate program in philosophy. She has four children ranging in age from 6 months to 19 years old. She believes that it is vital to raise children to be globally aware and to have empathy for others. Current projects include two blogs, political website, fundraising for an international non-profit organization, and a handmade business.

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