The Emotional Whiplash of Sending a Child to College

“Emotional whiplash,” that is what happens when we launch a child into college.

How can something so exciting carry with it such a dichotomy of emotions which include grief and joy; fear and delight; emptiness and fullness…just to name a few.

Let me bring you up to speed on where I’m at in this process personally. I have four children. Two of them have gone to college, finished and are now in successful careers. You would think I was a pro at leaving kids at college. I’ve done it two times already. I have two who live to tell of the experience and have, as my older daughter would say, “come back more awesome.” I was looking through my memories on Facebook and here’s a post I came across from six years ago when I left my oldest 1,000 miles away from home:

The further north I drove, the harder it became and I finally had a total melt-down at about Hazelton. I pulled into a McDonald’s in Pittston before getting on the northeast extension to collect myself. When we got back on the road I lost it again. Zach says ~ “Mommy, we better call Daddy (as he’s rubbing my shoulder to console me). He called his Dad and put him on speakerphone. Rod says, “What’s wrong?” I say, “I’m having a meltdown.” He says “Why?” I say, “Because I left Mark in Florida.” He says “Ok.” (L O N G P A U S E) “That’s what you were supposed to do.” I laughed! Zach says “That’s what an engineer would say, Mommy.” I laughed more! (Side note…this is why I need my husband…he completely balances my emotional overload). I absolutely LOVE my family!

I did the same thing when we dropped off the second one and most recently the third. There are some things about parenting our children for 18 to 20 years and then leaving them in an unfamiliar place to manage life on their own, without you, which will never come as normal or natural to any parent and especially to a Mom. Actually, quite the opposite is true. It goes against the grain of who you are as a parent.

But….isn’t this the goal? Then why when the goal is met, is it so painful and yet exciting all at the same time? Why in the world would launching that third one off to college be just as hard as it was the first two times? Here are a few things I have and am still learning about this process of raising children into adulthood.

There is grief involved. I hate grieving. The pain of grief hits deep in my core. Grief signals a significant change in life. But why is there so much grief involved in such a celebrated moment in a child’s life? Because nothing will ever be the same again. For almost two decades, this child has lived under your roof. You have been nurturing them with your God-created mother’s heart. You knew their day-to-day victories and struggles. You were there in the ups and downs. You’ve dried tears, kissed boo boos, fought over homework, washed their laundry, cooked their meals, driven them to school, sports and dance. You’ve cheered them on at every play, musical, recital and sporting event they have participated in.

And now, in a matter of a day or two, you are moving them out of your home and into a room they will call home for the next four years or so. With that one move, everything changes. You are no longer a part of their every day goings on as you have been from the moment they entered the world.

Yes, grief is very real during this process. You can deny it. You can give yourself lots of pretty, little pep talks about how good this is and how this is a truly successful parenting moment; which are all true by the way. However, until you fully feel the pain of your grief at the loss this has created in your life, those pep talks will fall through an empty hole and never really allow you to celebrate fully as your child moves forward.

When you find yourself headed down that road of grieving, don’t fight it, you are normal. And then there’s this…..

Loss of identity. A big part of my identity for almost three decades has been as Mom. Mark’s Mom. Brittany’s Mom. Zach’s Mom. And Carlene’s Mom. I’m “Momma T” to more kids than I can count and quite frankly I love it. It’s what I do….I mother. But, with each one out the door, my role as their mother changes dramatically right along with who I’ve identified myself with all those years.

The only way I’m going to get past this one is to realize and fully believe that my identity is not wrapped up in what I do, it is in who I am.

I am a child of the King of kings and Lord of lords. Everything said about who I am in the Bible as His child should be the only hook I hang the hat of my identity on. Period. The truth is…I will always be Mom. There is nothing that will ever change that fact. I should never, however, confuse who I am with what I do.

Let me also mention…

The quietness can be deafening. Ok…so…for a couple decades or so now your home has been Grand Central Station teaming with activity and chaos and noise. With each one that goes out the door, the noise goes with them. The door revolves less and less. Not only are your children not in and out, neither are their friends. As much as we as moms all complain about the activity, chaos and noise, deep down inside of us it is the very thing we love. We get used to it and it means there is life in our home.

With that quiet, however, comes time to think a whole entire thought which hasn’t happened in what seems like ages. Quite frankly it can be a bit frightening. I’m frantically looking for some kind of “noise” to fill the void. Social media, TV, radio, shopping, talking endless hours on the phone with whoever will listen….the list goes on and on.

Don’t let the quiet scare you. You are not alone and now is the time where the Holy Spirit’s quiet whispers become a bit louder. Listen. He’s right there in the quiet with you. He wants to hold you and continue parenting…you. He is the only One who can fill the void. Remember when you couldn’t wait to have more…quiet time?

For those of you who see this change of seasons coming, I want to admonish as well as encourage you. Don’t hang on. Our children are like caterpillars squirming their way out of the safety of the cocoon. If we try to hold them in the cocoon, they will never fly. We must let them have the freedom to come out of the cocoon. These years of college are the years that strengthen their wings so they can soar and become all God has created them to be.

If you have children who are a bit intimidated about leaving the nest, don’t be afraid to nudge them out and let them learn to fly on their own. It feels counter-intuitive you can bet, but is quite necessary in the development of a healthy, functioning adult. There are just things our children will never learn until they are on their own. Think about it, a tree will never develop roots and grow tall and strong if it is left under the shelter in a pot and watered by hand. It must experience the storms of life on the outside. Those storms are what make it strong and its roots grow deep.

The first thing God told Joshua before he entered the promised land was to be strong and courageous. It takes strength and courage as a parent to let our children enter their promised land.

As they see your strength and courage, it will be the shoulders they stand on to take this next step in their life.

They do come back. And when they do, my daughter was right, they come back more awesome than when I dropped them off. You know why? Because all of those seeds you planted for a couple decades begin to sprout and get watered and grow and eventually bloom. The best part – you get a front row seat. They will start jobs doing what they dreamed of doing and have worked hard to get. They develop a character that they never would have at home.

Not only that, your family begins to grow. They will get married and have their own children. Each season will bring its own set of joys and challenges, but you begin to realize it’s all going to be okay and it is all worth it. And you realize the reason it’s hard in the first place is because you have embraced each season and lived it to the fullest.

In closing, I’ve learned this…

This is a great opportunity to join with other moms who have children in college at a local Moms in Prayer group. Begin praying for their college campus. They need our prayers more today than ever and we get a front row seat to what God is doing in their midst.

Tina Chambers Smith is a speaker, writer, author and founder of Raising Kids on Your Knees, a blog focused on praying and parenting life into the lives of our children. She has seen the power of prayer in her own children’s lives and believes there is no better way for us as moms to raise our children than on our knees in daily prayer for them. Tina resides with her husband, Rod, in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Together they have four children and two grandchildren.

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