Photo: Justine McVeigh
The other day a friend of mine – on the verge of sending her youngest child off to university and probably feeling nostalgic – sent me a picture of our now-21-year-old boys playing ball in the schoolyard at age 9. She and her husband are soon to become what are known as “empty nesters.”
The Drop Off
This week thousands of parents will be dropping off their kids at college and university – some for the very first time, some for their last time. But in every case, whether it is your first, middle, or last child going, this experience of dropping off your child for the first time – or being dropped off for the first time – is a monumental moment, among the most emotional and memorable in both parents’ and children’s lives.
What a mix of emotions this transition is for both parents and the students heading off – a parent’s bittersweet ache of loss mixed with the excitement of knowing what is in store for their child; the child’s fear of the unknown combined with the thrill of tasting true freedom and independence, and all of the new friendships and knowledge out there waiting for them.
Saying Goodbye to Mom and Dad
It got me thinking about when I first left home at 17. Surprisingly, what happens in that very first week of being away from home can have lifelong consequences – and few frosh realize this.
I arrived at St. Michael's College at the University of Toronto all of those years ago accompanied by a full entourage – Mom, Dad, two sisters, brother, uncle. (I know, we are Italian – we do things big.) They moved me into my new dorm room, helped me and my new roommate Brenda get organized, but eventually the inevitable moment of parting came. My mother was brave, a bit teary, and tucked an envelope into my hand for later reading.
An Exciting First Week
I headed out to join the orientation fun as soon as possible, so as to avoid thinking about my family travelling hundreds of kilometres away from me. Brenda and I hit it off immediately and quickly became inseparable, as we immersed ourselves in the organized orientation activities. Sharing a bathroom with us was Trish, who I discovered was from a town just a couple of hours down the highway from where I grew up. We had a lot in common and found a haven in each other when the orientation activities got too out of control for our liking …
Getting Out There, Making New Friends
As we were divided into groups according to the “B-Movie Madness” orientation theme, Brenda and I found ourselves with “The Flies,” where we became fast friends with congenial Tony. It’s funny how, when faced with a new group of people, you naturally gravitate towards those who make you feel most comfortable, like home within a group of strangers. Together we marched down College Street in a faux-ridiculous-frosh-protest march against Michael Jackson, survived a frosh food fight at the Ukrainian Hall (those poor women, cooking …), collaborated on city-wide scavenger hunts, and really did bond.
On one of the social evenings, at a beer and pizza party, Tony introduced Brenda, Trish, and me to the guy living in the room below his, Reni. As it happens, his parents were from the same region in Italy where my grandfather was from. He was soft spoken and polite. Hmmm, I thought, he could be a good friend – like a brother. I will remember him.
My Parents' Drive Home
Meanwhile, it turns out that my mother, having put on a brave face for me, cried all the way home, having left her baby, the youngest of five, in a big city. She was now an “empty nester,” having had at least some kids at home for a span of 28 years. My father chatted brightly on the way home, reassuring her of how quickly I would adjust to my new situation. On that ride home, she wrote me another letter – mailed as soon as she got home – reassuring me about how positive she felt about my new life in Toronto.
A Handwritten Letter
However, in the quiet of the night, after the hoopla of orientation had died down, I settled into my newly made bed, in the sheets that my mother and I had picked out several weeks beforehand, and opened the letter she had left for me. Written on the hotel stationery, obviously penned the morning before leaving me, she gave me a list of “Helpful Hints” that she knew a teenager would not stand to listen to verbally, but that she wanted me to have:
"If you’re blue – for any reason:
1. Pray and go to mass, if possible.
2. Talk to someone you respect - soon - never remain blue more than 24 hours.
3. Call home any time.
4. Do something nice for someone.
5. Smile - yours is magnetic!
If you have a problem: Do same as above, especially #2.
Remember, I love you, you can share anything with me.
A Professor's Advice to Parents
Psychology professor Marshall P. Duke expressed just that – what my mother did in her note – in his Huffington Post article, describing his orientation advice to parents at Emory College:
"Each child only starts college once. Given the uniqueness of the day, it falls into the category that includes wedding days, special anniversaries, even days on which family losses occurred — big days — days that stick in our memories throughout life. Such moments are rare. They have power. They give us as parents one-time opportunities to say things to our children that will stick with them not only because of what is said, but because of when it is said.
Here is what I tell the parents: think of what you want to tell your children when you finally take leave of them and they go off to their dorm and the beginning of their new chapter in life and you set out for the slightly emptier house that you will now live in. What thoughts, feelings and advice do you want to stick? “Always make your bed!”? “Don’t wear your hair that way!”? Surely not. This is a moment to tell them the big things. Things you feel about them as children, as people. Wise things. Things that have guided you in your life. Ways that you hope they will live. Ways that you hope they will be. Big things. Life-level things.
I tell the parents lastly, that I, myself, was never able to do this, because I was too emotional and couldn’t quite say what I wanted without crying or with a desirable level of equanimity. All is not lost, I tell them and I tell you. As soon as you can after you leave the campus, write your child a letter — with a pen — on real paper — in your own hand. The first sentence should be something like, “When I left you at the campus today,(or at the airport , etc.) I could not tell you what I wanted to say, so I’ve written it all down.....” Mail the letter to the child. It will not be deleted; it will not be tossed away; it will be kept. Its message will stick. Always."
Treasure of the Written Word ... on Paper
Boy, was my mother wise. She knew that instinctively. I still have that letter, thirty-some years later, as a testament to my mother’s care and what I would take away with me as I moved on in life. Her written words are a treasure, and I wonder what will happen years from now when all of the current important messages and emotions have been relegated only to digital form, lost to the “cloud.”
So, to all of you parents facing this momentous moment: put pen to paper. Give your kids something they can hold on to, tangibly, and pull out when needed. It may sound old-fashioned, but maybe they will just tuck it away, under their pillow, among their treasures.
Treasure of Friendship
And another treasure for me? I have kept those friends, whom I met that very first week, dear to my heart for 34 years now, as my best friends – and one became my husband. We are all godparents to each others’ children, our kids think of each other as cousins, we vacation together. So, to all of you new students: keep your eyes open that first week, get involved, and open your heart to letting new people in. And open your heart too to what your parents will need to tell you.
What treasures do you still have from that first week away from home at university? What was your parting from your parents like? As a parent, did you find it helpful to write to your child when leaving them at school? Does it make a difference whether you get your message across in digital or material form?
I am Carla DeSantis, and welcome to my blog! I love language and words and books, and have turned this love into a business, helping others to perfect their written message.