ASK MOM: Oldest daughter leaving for college, mom grieving alreadyOct 14, 2023 01:18AM ● By Mary Follin and Erika Guerrero
THE PROBLEM: My oldest daughter is leaving for college next year, and truth be told, I’ve been sad about it since she was in tenth grade. I know this isn’t healthy, but she’s the light of my life, and everything will change once she’s gone. I have two other children that I love just as much, so the thought of ALL of them eventually leaving is practically making me sick! My husband seems to be taking it all in stride, so I guess it’s a mom thing. I wish I could feel better about it, since that’s what kids are supposed to do. Leave, right?
MARY SAYS: You love your children, and they’re all going to leave—been there! And of course, grief after loss is a natural thing. But has it ever occurred to you that all relationships end? Whether it’s a short friendship or a lifelong attachment, each of us has to be prepared to let it go.
Your husband seems to get this, but I wouldn’t assume your angst is a ‘mom thing.’ Moms and Dads are equally prone to living through their children. Over-involvement in the kids’ activities, friends, problems, etc. all make for a less-than-easy transition when the kids are ready to move on.
Of course it’s painful to disentangle from someone who defines who you are!
Perhaps it’s time to turn inward and say “hello” to ‘you.’ You are the only constant in your life, so you might as well get to know yourself better. You’ve taken care of babies, children, and now you’re in the young adult stage. Celebrate the changes in your life with the one person who has seen you through all of them.
Find out who you are; figure out what you love to do. Channel the energy you put into raising kids into exploring the essence of the person you face in the mirror every day. Congratulate that mom you see in there for getting your kids through childhood, but recognize it’s time to move on. Now is your chance to cultivate your own garden, and you don’t need to wait until the kids leave to begin.
ERIKA SAYS: Oh, sweet mama! My heart aches for you. While my child is not about to leave for college (not even close), the thought of him growing up and leaving the nest already makes me feel what you're describing. It’s hard to think we have raised our little humans, protected them day in and day out, and then we have to let them go. I believe it’s normal to grieve this milestone, but since you feel your experience may not be healthy, sitting down and talking with a professional is never a bad idea.
My concern is about the time you’ve spent focused on your daughter leaving instead of making memories, not to mention you have two other children whom I gather are younger. Please don’t get so caught up in your grief that you forget the ones who are still at home.
Everyone processes things differently. Your husband doesn’t appear to be sad, but he may be internalizing it. He may even feel like he can’t allow himself to go there, because he has to be strong for everybody else. I can also imagine your two other children are experiencing their own emotions about big sister leaving; keep in mind they’re looking to you for coping mechanisms, watching how you work through this life event.
Here's a thought. Tell yourself it's okay to allow yourself to feel emotions other than sadness. (I always try to find the silver lining in everything, because if I don’t, I’ll walk right into a pity party and wallow in it to my heart’s content!) Why not let yourself get excited about your daughter’s departure and celebrate her journey as a family?
Create a vision board of goals, visit colleges as a family, and find ways to support her new adventure. Start some new college traditions that you can continue over the years with your younger children. Feeling excited may help your daughter, too, as I imagine she may be anxious about this life transition.
And for you? Now is the time to discover a new outlet. You won’t exactly be an empty-nester, but having one less child in the home will give you more time to focus on yourself. What’s something you’ve wanted to do but haven’t had the chance to? How can you use this time to take better care of yourself? Does anyone else in your friend group have children leaving for college? Perhaps you can meet once a month to plan out visits, come up with care package themes, talk about your feelings, and keep each other encouraged.
As you settle into a new normal, you will feel joy again. The dynamic between you and your daughter will change, but you’ll learn to love your new relationship. Watching her grow into a young adult and flourish in the real world will bring you happiness and pride. You’ll always be her mama, she’ll never stop needing her parents, and you’ll only be a phone call away.
ASK MOM offers parents two perspectives on today’s child-rearing issues—one from a mom with grown children (Mary), the other from a mom raising a small child (Erika). If you’re looking for creative solutions, or your mom isn’t around to ask, drop in!
If you have a question for Mary and Erika, we’d love to hear from you! [email protected]
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Mary Follin is the author of Teach Your Child to Read™ and ETHYR, winner of the Moonbeam Children's Book Award and the Gertrude Warner Book Award. She is mom to two grown sons and enjoys sharing her more seasoned perspective with parents of younger children.
Erika Guerrero is a freelance hair and makeup artist, Erika K. Beauty, single-mama to one amazing boy, and author of She’s Not Shaken, a blog offering hope and encouragement to women in all walks of life.