My College:
Family Life

What Really Happens After College Drop-Off

Marlene Kern Fischer

You’ve imagined it countless times in your head and now it’s a reality. After all the planning and shopping, packing and unpacking, your student is officially a college freshman.

You’ve moved them into their residence hall, said your goodbyes, and shed a few (or more than a few) tears. What happens next?!

This will be my third (and last) go ‘round as the parent of a college freshman. So, though it will be my first experience returning to an empty nest, I do know what it’s like to drop off your child at college and head home.

I can tell you that it feels odd to depart with one fewer family member in your midst — kind of the opposite of when you gave birth and came home from the hospital with an additional person.

You May Wait Breathlessly...

After I left my two older sons, I waited breathlessly for a text or call.

And waited and waited.

Even though communication was never their strong suit, I was still surprised I didn’t hear from them. I wanted — no, NEEDED — to hear how they were doing, and they didn’t provide much information.

I found out that this is normal. You may hear a lot from your student, or you may hear very little. If you're in the “very little” category, don’t worry; know that your student is navigating a new environment, meeting new people, figuring out their academic schedule, adjusting to having a roommate, etc.

In other words, they have a ton going on and calling you may not be their first priority. If I was lucky, I received brief (sometimes one word) replies to my texts. More often there was silence.

With great difficulty, I squelched my desire to reach out all the time. I knew it was better to leave them be for a while.

Then They Call...And You Almost Wish They Hadn't

One thing was worse than a lack of communication: the phone calls and texts I got when they had a problem or were unhappy. Those caught me off guard because, by the end of the summer, my sons had seemed so ready to leave.

I wasn’t always sure what to say when they were upset, but learned that just listening and offering reassurance and support was the best course of action. Keeping the lines of communication open and letting your student know you’re there for them despite the physical distance is the best you can do.

Parents of other first-year students may be reluctant to share that their offspring are also going through a period of homesickness and adjustment. However, I can assure you there is a settling-in period for everyone.

Staying Close While Apart

You may also be wondering how you’ll stay close now that you don’t live under the same roof.

The bottom line is you’re not going to know what they’re up to at any given moment (and you wouldn’t always want to). That doesn’t mean you can’t still be an integral part of each other’s lives. Family group texts, funny short emails that include photos of a pet (a cheap but effective trick), and little care packages are all ways to stay connected.

We tried to have a set regular time to speak with our sons by phone but it wasn’t carved in stone and often the day and hour would roll around and they just weren’t available to talk.

On that note...

Mismatched Circadian Rhythms

Dropping your student at college is a bit like leaving them in a foreign country with its own time zone.

Scheduling conversations can be challenging. My oldest once called home at 1 a.m. to chat and I was like, “Are you kidding me?!” He’d somehow forgotten that my bedtime was several hours earlier. Even allowing for the hour difference between St. Louis where he was and New York where I was, that time just wasn’t going to work. I wanted to talk to him — just not when I was half conscious!

Worry a Little, Trust a Lot

You may have concerns about your student’s well-being.

Parents of 18-year-olds have all seen their occasional lapses in judgment first-hand. Know that the lessons you have taught your child and the values you instilled in them have impacted who they have become. My husband and I were happy to discover that, for the most part, it appeared our boys had been listening to us all those years (even when we thought they weren’t).

In other words, despite the likelihood that they will make some mistakes, your student will be okay. You did a good job. Now it’s time to trust them.

I’ll leave you with this.

As you journey home, whether to a house that still contains other children or an emptier one, the new normal will take time to get used to. The future will be a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of your students leaving and returning and leaving again. But the ties which bind you will remain, strong and enduring.

Marlene Kern Fischer is a wife, mother, food shopper extraordinaire, author and college essay editor. She has published two books: Trapped in My Sports Bra and Other Harrowing Tales and Gained a Daughter but Nearly Lost My Mind: How I Planned a Backyard Wedding During a Pandemic. Find her on Facebook at Thoughts From Aisle 4.
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