This post first appeared in my newsletter, Parent of Adults. Read the full issue + comments on the Parent of Adults website at Substack.
In response to the first issue of Parent of Adults, several of you mentioned you’re getting ready to drop your kid off at college, some for the first time. ‼️‼️ I was flooded with memories of sending my own two kids off to school: my son in 2018, and my daughter in 2021.
I know I promised to go a bit lighter in this issue, but how could I blow past this huge parent-of-adults moment?
I thought, rather than the silly story I had planned, it would be more helpful to share what college drop-off was like for me. I’ll skip the play-by-play; the details and dynamics are different for everyone, and the last thing you need is another packing list. I’ll just mention a few things that stood out.
I was texting with my friend, Karen, about her daughter’s impending college departure. “It’s getting real,” she said.
Her text brought me back to August 2018. My son was was in the thick of packing. The teetering pile of dorm supplies occupying the corner of his room gradually shrank as as he shoved things into suitcases and IKEA duffel bags.
I couldn’t shake the unsettling feeling of acceleration. Summer had sauntered by for months, and now suddenly it felt like someone had stepped on the gas. Wait, WAIT! I found myself wanting to pump the imaginary brakes. I, who had never pined for my kids’ younger years! I, who was so proud and excited for my son and who anticipated his departure as a joyous milestone. I, who had secretly been a bit smug about how well I’d handled everything up until that moment.
They say parenting never ends. You know what else never ends? The humbling. The humbling never ends.
That torturous moment was mercifully short. Soon we were consumed by a blur of details, logistics, schedules and baggage weights. The ride was underway. Full speed ahead.
Getting my daughter ready for college felt totally different. Easier in some ways (we’d done this before), so much harder in others (COVID anxiety + complicated aftermath of COVID junior/senior year).
Not to mention: she’s my youngest, so when we got back home it would just be my husband and me. There’s much more to say about that and I will, in future newsletters.
The main point for now is that the second time around, I had similar bittersweet feelings, but fewer worries about packing. She brought the basics with her. The priority was getting her safely to the dorm, helping her move in, and being present for the experience together. I transferred some $ to her account so she could buy missing or forgotten items later.
The actual drop-off
The memory of both my kids’ drop-offs has coalesced into JOY + PRIDE + LOOK AT HOW MAGNIFICENT THEY ARE + WOW, WE MADE IT. Each time, we problem-solved together, laughed a lot, and shared tender moments I’ll treasure forever.
When I revisit the swirl of emotion during those times, however, the specifics were more complicated.
With my son, drop-off was an awkward dance between fussing and stepping back. My husband and I wanted to support him without smothering, but it was tricky. I missed the mark more than once. I had moments of irritation and mopiness. I had a fleeting worry that our presence made the whole process harder on my son. But in the end I was so grateful we made the move together (so was he).
When it was time to say good-bye, his courage and readiness was something to behold. It steadied me as I sat, relieved but numb, on the flight home.
When we dropped our daughter off, my husband and I were more calm and efficient, which helped make up for some of my COVID anxiety. This was the first time since the pandemic began that we’d traveled by plane and spent time in crowded surroundings. I was terrified one of us would get sick and torpedo her move into the dorm and first week of school. My daughter had already lost so much to the pandemic. I desperately wanted this to be okay for her.
I also couldn’t bear the thought that this pinnacle of a parenting milestone — dropping my youngest kid off at college — could be snatched away from me.
It’s strange to recall that feeling, because the COVID landscape and our approach to it is different now. But it defined that moment for me. My daughter handled it much better than I did (I wish I could say otherwise).
Her bold energy carried us. This was the first time she was seeing the campus — she’d accepted admission sight unseen as we didn’t go on college visits — and she leapt right in. She’d already “met” her roommate via Instagram, and within days she found a group of like-minded friends.
Like our son three years before, she was READY. Ready for life beyond COVID isolation, beyond home.
Dropping her off was like watching the sun come out from behind the clouds. That didn’t make saying goodbye any easier. When it was time, I — the most expressive one in our family! — shuffled my feet and avoided her gaze. But I eventually got it together. She was going to be okay, better than okay. And so was I.
After our son’s drop-off, we returned to a changed family life. We missed him like crazy, and my eyes kept wandering to his empty chair at the table. I’m not an enthusiastic housekeeper, but for some reason the ritual of cleaning his room from top to bottom made me feel better.
It took time to adjust to the different energy in the house, and to find the right tone and cadence of communication with our son. But life was not so different that we had to completely reorient ourselves. We still had a kid at home with three years of high school ahead. Most of our rhythms and routines continued relatively unchanged.
Contrast that to coming home after dropping off our daughter: we were now empty nesters. What did that even mean? To my husband and me as partners? To me as a mother? To me as…me? Part of me wanted to jump on the table and dance a jig and another part of me wanted to huddle in the corner.
It was a strange mix of shock (is this really it?), relief (HALLELUJAH), giddiness (the joy of cooking dinner for two people with similar food tastes!), freedom (the mental space was breathtaking), grief (missing my daughter + mourning the end of this parenting chapter), and curiosity (what now?).
Some experiences are just too big to be contained in a predictable set of emotions. College drop-offs were like that for me. I did best when I let go of the timeline and gave myself permission to feel it all — the thrill, the worry, the pride, the uncertainty, the exhaustion, the relief. The love.
Really, it was all just love.
Whatever you feel, even if it isn’t what you expected, or what your friend felt, or it doesn’t fit the cultural template of “college drop-off,” it’s okay. It’s all okay.
I’m okay. I’m better than okay.
Parent of Adults by Asha Dornfest is a newsletter about life after the kids grow up. Subscribe below or at ashadornfest.substack.com.