Elizabeth Tomlin reflects on the lessons she learned last August as a first-time college mom.
In August, many families will be moving their children to college. Last year, I became a college mom for the first time. As I think back on that experience, the following reflection still rings true.
On freshman move-in weekend, I spent $133.47 at my son, Patrick’s, college bookstore. I had not spent that much money on nonessentials since the pandemic hit. But I enthusiastically plunked the money onto the counter at the College of William and Mary bookstore and strutted outside to the Virginia summer humidity sporting a new ball cap and a bag full of college mom paraphernalia that screamed my pride in Patrick’s next step in his adult life.
Arriving to Patrick’s new residence hall, we unload bins of school supplies and a semester’s worth of clothing, bedding, and ramen noodles. We were amateurishly clumsy in our unloading tactics as items fell out of grocery bags and rolled across the sidewalk. While chasing a rogue bottle of Gatorade, I noticed that the mom and son in the car in front of us had expertly packed everything in large, zip-up Ikea bags. Several college mom bumper stickers on her SUV tailgate, from at least three different schools, confirmed that she was a seasoned freshman move-in-er.
Once we transported the gear to Patrick’s room, we started to arrange the furniture. Patrick rejected each suggestion I gave for how to fit his mini-fridge into his rather small room, and it became clear that he wanted, and perhaps needed, to arrange his room without me. I left Patrick and his sister to the task while I ran to the store for a few necessities.
As soon as I got in the car, I was grateful for my new ball cap and oversized sunglasses because the floodgates opened. I cried my eyes out all the way to the store and up and down laundry detergent aisle. I even cried my way through the Chick-Fil-A drive-thru on my way back to campus. When I returned to the dorm, Patrick and his sister were beaming with satisfaction. They had made the bed, hung posters, strung Christmas lights, and even found a spot for the mini fridge. The room looked great – without my input.
I invited Patrick to go to dinner with us, but he opted to eat with other freshman. My daughter drove past the dorm later in the evening to see if Patrick needed anything. From a distance, I spotted him sitting on the lawn with other students. We slowed down to look but kept driving. I didn’t want to intrude. We said our goodbyes in the dorm parking lot the next morning.
I left Patrick with the following words:
Be good. Study hard. Go to church.
And I cried – surprise, surprise. I told myself that I would feel less sad when my daughter leaves for college. However, as I put the minivan in reverse, I saw the expert unloader family from the day before. That seasoned college mom hugged her son goodbye with a smile, slid into her car, and burst into tears.
I was not prepared for college mom grief. It is a confounding grief. A paradox, really. Unlike other types of grief, in grieving a child leaving the nest, we’re grieving exactly what we worked so hard to attain for so many years.
Throughout motherhood, we traverse “long days and short years” filled with pregnancy nausea or the anticipation of adoption, teaching our children to read, celebrating birthdays, confronting medical challenges, leading scout meetings, navigating finances, getting kids to behave in church, reheating cups of coffee for the third or even fourth time, attending sports practices and music recitals, and helping our kids learn to share, do chores, and make good friends. We joyfully and exhaustedly parent our children.
With our work often unseen, we raise squirmy, snuggly children to become God-loving, independent, kindhearted young adults who don’t need our help to set up dorm rooms, find dinner, or make friends.
But the manifestation of that adult can break our mom hearts a little as we think about the childhood years where they desperately need our physical presence.
It’s okay to grieve that our children don’t need us the way they used to. It’s okay to cry on college move-in day. Once again, I bawled my eyes out on the flight home from Virginia to Washington State. Somewhere over Missouri, I recalled words that my friend Mary Lenaburg wrote about grief:
“Acceptance is where healing begins.”
So the goal is acceptance. God called me to motherhood that began with a child who desperately needed me for nearly his entire life until now. Now, however, my vocation as his mother is to accept that my son needs me in different ways. He needs the hidden work of my prayers instead of overt actions. He needs the subtlety of a listening ear instead of direction. He needs me to support him even if he does things differently than I would. He needs me to observe him from a distance while he forges his way. His Mom driving away is exactly what Patrick needs.
As for me, I need to accept that happiness and sadness can co-exist in this new chapter of motherhood.
About the Author
Elizabeth is the author of Joyful Momentum: Building and Sustaining Vibrant Women’s Groups (Ave Maria Press), General Counsel for the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, and director of stewardship for the Military Council of Catholic Women, where she previously served as the president and as director of faith formation. Elizabeth is a catechist and speaker, and blogs at JoyfulMomentum.org.