Wednesday, 27 Sep 2023

What I Wish I'd Known During My Kid's First Year of College

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Like so many parenting milestones, you can listen to all the stories, read all the books, posts and articles you get your hands on and make as many plans as you can. But nothing truly prepares you until you experience it for yourself.

My first kid headed off to college, and I’m still questioning my parenting skills. Since then, I have taken stock of what has happened — the good and the bad — and am ready to admit that it wasn’t quite what I expected. Here’s my take on freshman year, and the lessons we learned that will come in handy for those just starting their journeys.

My kid brought too much stuff … and things she’ll never use.

Even after digesting countless how-to-pack guides and loading up on extra-long sheets, we forgot some basics. How I wished we had remembered a digital thermometer, especially when my daughter came down with COVID, and a small trash can for all those tissues.  And of course, the things we thought would be ideal, like a filtered water bottle, came back home untouched. Sometimes, it pays to wait and see what your kid will actually need — and for those moments, Amazon became her new best friend.

Dorm life isn’t what it used to be.

When I was in college, I remember meeting my hallmates and keeping our doors open to see who was around to grab dinner or go to the library. (And raise your hand if your RA hosted a “meet and greet” when you first arrived on campus, so there was no way you could be found sitting in your room alone.) These days, dorm room doors seem to remain closed and the halls are a bit quieter than back in the day. Is COVID to blame for the lack of interaction? Or the fact that they can keep in closer touch with their friends via social media now, and don’t feel such a pressing need to make new ones? There’s no substitute for striking up a conversation in person instead of scrolling through your Instagram feed.

Saying goodbye isn’t easy, but it’s something you’ll learn to master.

I’ve never been able to say “so long” when the time apart feels so long. That first time you leave your child is worse than the first day of preschool drop-off, not because you know your baby is growing up, but because they are (gulp) doing it without you. But now, after a few times of watching my daughter board a bus or train, I see someone who is becoming more independent with each mile she travels. That just makes me hug her harder — and shed fewer tears.

Those online parenting groups will be your lifeline.

Even if you’ve never met these moms and dads, you’ll take comfort in the fact that you are all going through the same thing: trying to stay present in your child’s life at school (and deal with the fact that they’re gone) while giving them the space they need. For some, it may be as simple as commiserating about the lack of hot water in the dorm or recommending a place to stay during parents’ weekend. For others, regular check-ins with parents of students struggling can provide a sense of community, especially when you are thousands of miles away.

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Care packages are still cool.

It doesn’t matter if your cookies aren’t homemade, or whether or not there’s a holiday on the calendar. When your kid sees that little card in their mailbox alerting them to a package pickup, it will make their day. In the last few months, I have sent small boxes filled with extra socks for the winter, greeting cards with silly sentiments, window decorations for Halloween and Valentine’s Day, and treats from our local bakery. Sure, your kid may be getting old — but letting you know you love them never does.

Parenting from a distance is tough.

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: helping your student navigate the ups and downs of college life isn’t easy, especially when they are away from home. You wish you could just sit with your kid and listen to them pour their heart out as you pass the tissue box. But on the bright side, thanks to the wonders of technology, she is just a text or phone call away when she needs you.

Your texts may go unanswered — and that’s OK.

And of course, the flip side to constant contact is that you may not always get the resolution you’re hoping for. Did she decide to rush for the other sorority? Was he able to drop that class in time? Sure, we may have lost sleep with these worries, but when you finally hear that your kid “figured it out,” you’ll breathe a sigh of relief. Yes, sometimes no news is, in fact, good news.

You’ll feel happy and sad … sometimes all at once.

Remember the time when the kindergarten teacher told you that your kid fell at recess, but didn’t get upset and you were amazed at her bravery? And maybe later that night, when you recounted the story to your husband, you choked back tears? Yup, those same feelings may come rushing back at you now, with an even greater intensity. I loved that my kid didn’t rely on me to be her human alarm clock when she was home for winter break, but I do miss seeing the peaceful look on her sleeping face when I used to wake her up for school.

Finding “your people” can take a while.

Didn’t it seem like your suitemates became best buddies the moment they moved in? Not everyone experiences instant friendship — and if this sums up how your kid’s first-year experience, they are good company. I remind my daughter that connecting with people means putting yourself out there, even if it seems awkward, and that eventually, you may find one or two people who bring out the best in you. And if that doesn’t happen until the first snowflakes fall or spring blossoms begin to bud, that just means it was worth waiting for.

This is your kid’s college experience, not yours.

I continue to remind myself of this lesson because it’s not easy to accept. My own college years were filled with more negatives than positives, so I’ve done everything in my power to enter this stage of my adult life with eyes wide open. Because like any good parent, I can’t shield my kid from the trials and tribulations she’ll face. But, when it’s time to celebrate her triumphs, I’ll be ready and waiting.

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