Guest Post: Karen Jones on Sending Her Son to University

Three weeks before the university drop-off date, I bumped into a girlfriend, Sue, whose son went off to an out-of-town school last September. She asked me how I was feeling….”Are you ready for drop-off?”

I quickly dove into a confident explanation about how I had my “breakdown” during the university tour process in March. My 18 year old son, Chris, would be completely creeped-out to learn that I would go into his room at night, stand over him, and stare at him until dime-sized teardrops fell onto his face, causing him to stir. Never before in my life had I cried such massive, heavy teardrops. After confidential disclosure to other parents, I discovered that I am not the only mother who has done the creepy-nighttime-bawl-over-your-kid’s-face thing. Chris is an amazing young man and we have always been close, even through the challenging but typical ups and downs of the mid-teen years, because we have always respected one another’s needs. Chris has been a significant source of my personal happiness. I pointed out to Sue that of late, Chris has been very pumped about going off to Queen’s to study his passion, engineering. I also explained how I have taken on a healthy, positive, and upbeat attitude as my feelings of sadness have been completely overshadowed by sheer excitement for Chris. Sue looked back at me, expressionless. After an uncomfortable five seconds of silence and solid eye contact, she leaned over and whispered into my ear, “You’re going to be a disaster”.

Two weeks before drop-off I was sufficiently distracted with “the list”. A pile including bed linens, toiletries and organizer bins was slowly growing in our hallway, looking more and more, as each day passed, like a mountain of disaster relief supplies. I was definitely becoming obsessive about “the list” and panicked at the thought of overlooking something. It was like Chris was heading off to a remote land far away for an entire year, with no money and where there were no stores. I also seemed to be imagining that Chris would be living in a room the size of a gymnasium with ample space to store “necessary” extras such as emergency medical supplies (the Kingston General Hospital is literally steps away from his residence), cold temperature survival gear, a full selection of dried-good food inventory, and of course, the spare, extra-padded desk chair. I was also collecting lists from other moms for comparison. My work paid off as I discovered I had forgotten about zip-lock baggies. (Yes, this is how crazy a peri-menopausal, over-protective, control-freak mom can get when her first is leaving the nest). One day, I found myself in the grocery store, excitedly texting Chris, “I found 3-ply tissues for you…3 ply is the best you can buy…and I searched for ones that come in non-flowery boxes”, to which he replied with the all too-familiar words, “Oh gaaawwwwd, Mom…STOP! ” Yes, I was sufficiently distracted by the list.

One week before drop-off, I began collecting advice from “experienced” university parents. The resounding opinion about drop-off day was, “Have your breakdown in the car…not in front of your child.” I also learned, for whatever reason, that all “newbie” university moms were obsessed with the whole bedding situation (I mean linens…not “bedding” as in the verb…to which I could dedicate an entire separate article covering moms’ concerns). Early Saturday morning, I announced to my husband that our goal for the weekend was to find a good mattress topper for Chris’s bed. “A WHAT?”, he replied, “Are you serious?…I went to university with a duffle bag full of clothes and a blanket…he’s going to get laughed out of the residence” (Fast forward to drop-off day…the garbage bin was full of mattress topper wrappings.) Yes, things had changed in the world of mom-preps-child-for-uni. Chris was nicely set-up with a vinyl-free, non-dust-permeable mattress pad, two sets of organic cotton sheets (500 thread count, no less), a 3” memory-foam mattress topper, down pillows, down comforter (extra-warm), and a duvet cover set. I still don’t quite understand why it was so important for his bed at university to be significantly more comfortable and exquisite than his bed at home…it just had to be. In my mind, this was somehow going to be the substitute for my comfort and care.

Two days before drop-off, I felt remarkably calm and content. Chris gave us our instructions…“Mom, please don’t make a scene. And when we get to my room, just leave everything…I will set it up myself”, to which I replied, “I won’t make a scene, but there is no way I am leaving without making your bed…no negotiation on this, Christopher”. We had a deal.

One day before drop-off, I started to unravel. At precisely 4:00pm, while setting the table for dinner the tears started. I hid from Chris most of that evening and got extra hugs from his younger brother and sister.

On the day of drop-off, the excitement on campus was palpable. Chris’s room was cozy and everything was organized in an hour although he left the zip-lock baggies in the trunk of the car when I wasn’t looking. It was a quick goodbye. I was so excited for what lay ahead of him and gave him a tight squeeze. He pulled my sunglasses down from the top of my head to cover my eyes, for fear of a scene.   As I got in the car, the tears flowed. My sister called during our drive home to check on me (an experienced mom who knew the exact moment to offer support), but I couldn’t speak to her. That first night was utterly dreary and depressing. I texted with other newbie moms and they were all upset.   I realized that for the first time in 18 years, I would no longer have any idea about what he was doing, when he would make it back to his room to sleep at night, and I no longer had the right to text him as frequently, to ask. It was the strangest feeling – a complete loss of control. I was feeling very sorry for myself, and I already missed him. My husband was very quiet. He asked me not to talk about Chris being gone because he didn’t want to think about it. I’m pretty sure I saw him wipe a tear from his eye before turning over in bed to go to sleep that night. The next day came and went exactly the way experienced moms said it would. I was upset when I woke up, and then I was fine for a bit, and then I would spontaneously cry, and then I was fine. There was simply no pattern or trigger; instead, it was random sobbing and sadness. The only thing I came to expect was that I could burst into tears at any moment.

My world brightened after Chris called for the first time…on day two (I know…it was frosh week and we were lucky). After I heard his voice, full of excitement, and his rambling words highlighted by “amazing”, “unbelievable”, “so much fun”, “party”, “so dope”, “party”…and the clincher “absolutely everyone is so incredibly warm and friendly”, I felt a wave of joy wash over me. My son was happy. I could trade not seeing him for a month or so for that happy, happy voice. And before he hung up, he exclaimed, “oh ya mom…my bed…it’s SO comfortable!”. I knew then, that “drop-off” had gone incredibly well and I would join the ranks of “experienced” moms who survived.

Karen and Andrew Jones with their son, Chris, after high school graduation last spring.

Karen and Andrew Jones with their son, Chris, after high school graduation last spring.

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