The time between graduation and college drop-off is a surreal mothering season. At our house last summer, the battle cry of “the last time” began to gain volume and frequency. The high school group gathered often, and we danced the balance of giving our graduate time with his friends and requesting time spent with family. In between all this memory-making, there were tasks to get done, like writing thank-you notes for graduation gifts, attending college orientation, and going to the welcome camp for incoming freshmen. I want to help you optimize the 10 or so weeks between these big occasions so that you can face it with confidence.
While it was hard sharing my son’s limited time when he wasn’t at work, I wanted him to enjoy time with his high school and church friends who had been so important. I remembered the trepidation I felt about leaving those friendships behind when I left for college. So, we bought hamburger patties in bulk, kept the pantry stocked with snacks, and maintained an open-door policy so that the kids could meet up at our house. This really was my secret to “sharing” my son, while also keeping him nearby. I loved having a house full of teenagers and watching how they sent one another off, one by one. We said “yes” as often as we could, and that included letting them borrow my minivan so they could ride together to the airport to send off the first friend to the Coast Guard. The photo from the moment they prayed for him in a big circle affirmed that allowing every investment in these relationships was well worth it.
In order to also squeeze in some family time, we planned a family vacation, and we tried to maintain a rhythm for regular family dinner and games, which required putting these dates on the calendar. Before move-in day, we set up time to see extended family before our son left, and we also plotted out the details of Thanksgiving so that we all had that first holiday together to anticipate.
With graduation parties behind us, I set my planning on the dorm room. I am the mom who carefully double checks the packing list for summer camp. Mentally, I found myself considering this first year like an extended summer camp, except that no packing list came with the college acceptance letter. After hours online, I compiled my own dorm shopping list, which I am sharing with you (download by clicking on the thumbnail below or by clicking here). When I moved my son out of the dorm in May, I realized some items had gone unused. But, I felt much better all year long knowing that if he needed a paper clip, snacks, or cleaning supplies — he had them.
When it comes to the overwhelming task of packing, I’d like to offer a few tips. First of all, pace your shopping, which is helpful both financially and emotionally. Next, we set a packing area in our formal living room so that we could add to the pile after purchased or gifted items had been crossed off the list. Once everything was gathered, I followed the advice of an experienced college mom who told me to buy large, clear plastic bins which could be used for every move-in — and move home — during college. During the school year, they stack and store easily in our garage. I bought 14 of them, and being able to see all the contents was helpful for both move-in and move-out.
Per the university’s move-in instructions, we printed signs with our son’s name, phone number, and dorm room to tape to the outside of every bin. At our son’s university, they have these magical volunteers who descend on your vehicle to move all of your child’s worldly goods into his or her dorm room in about three minutes flat.
One other important preparation task to mention is having legal documents signed by your child with a notary. Once your child is 18 and living away from home, if there is a medical or other emergency, you will be glad to have a medical power of attorney, a statutory durable power of attorney, and a protected health information authorization. We found our forms online.
At college orientation, the session for parents was incredibly helpful for my emotional preparation. They walked through the freshman year, month by month, with expectations and tips. I needed them to remind me to be the supportive cheerleader, and to be mindful about telling our son how much we missed him or how empty the house feels without him. I needed them to tell us to be sad elsewhere and to be aware of how difficult or emotional it might feel to our son. They encouraged us to keep his room at home exactly the same, and to have him stay at school for the first several weekends so that he could begin to transition.
With every note of advice, it emphasized that my role as a mom was not ending, just changing. Every slide on the PowerPoint began to paint a picture of how I would mother in this new season. Most important, this defined a new role to embrace and helped me dream about these new beginnings. This session also included a parent panel, reiterating the need to connect with other moms in the same season for emotional support. This inspired me to start a group for college moms called Box Club. We gather monthly to make themed care packages to send to our kids.
What I Would Do Differently
In hindsight, I wish that my husband and I had sat down with our son to better set some expectations. We talked in general about lots of things, but we didn’t really talk specifics about how often or how we would communicate, how often he might visit home or want us to come visit him, and how to manage unexpected health needs or expenses. Our son is no worse off for these oversights, but since he’s been home this summer, he and I have identified some unnecessary stress during the adjustment because of unmet and unspoken expectations.
As college drop-off nears, no matter how your packing or preparation goes, have confidence that you have laid the best foundation for your child simply by loving him or her, day after day. That goes with your child, even if you forget something else.
You can read the conclusion of this story in “Surviving College Drop-Off Day.”