It’s the Summer Before College and We’re All Dealing Differently

It’s summer after high school graduation for my twins Sophia and Liv, and each member of our family of four is having complicated feelings about their imminent departure to (the same) college across the country. Both kids are undecided, which means instead of an academic goal to attach the journey to, we’re all focused on the lifestyle transition of leaving friends and empty nesting. The vibe is steady resignation with a soupçon of panic. (I turn away so as to hide my quivering lip when it starts up.)

First thing you should know: I’m projecting my own baggage here.  I can still feel the ache of my  homesickness my first few months of college. All their lives Sophia and Liv had to have absorbed the family lore: My parents dropped me off on a Tuesday and I turned around for a visit home that Friday. “She stopped crying around thanksgiving,” their grandma has shared often. If I had known myself better at that age, I probably would have chosen a smaller college instead of the massive university where I felt utterly lost. 

It’s natural to be reluctant to leave a happy home

But mostly it’s a perfectly natural reluctance to leave a home that’s happy and make new friends when they love the ones they have. I am also sensitive to their worry whether they’ll feel as uniquely — and safely — themselves there as they do here. 

It’s the summer before college and mom is the CEO (chief emotions officer) (Photo credit: Liz Vaccariello)

We’re all trying to maintain brave faces. As CEO (chief emotions officer) of the family, I listen, observe and interpret. 

Sophia’s greatest skill is knowing how to frame situations so they cause her the least anxiety. How is she feeling about leaving for college? “I’m not really thinking about it, to be honest,” she said to me in late June. “I’m just focusing on having a fun summer with my friends.” (She sure gets points for mindful living.)

A few weeks later, I overheard her say to some friends: “I’m not stressed about college.”

My daughters’ friends all worry about starting college

One friend was worrying she’d picked a school too close, another worried they were going too far, a third wanted to major in business but what if they decided to become a veterinarian instead? That’s when I heard my daughter repeat the advice of her godmother, a university professor, whom we’d visited that spring: “Don’t sweat the decision too much because you can always transfer! Nothing is forever, and you’ll change a lot during these years. If the fit isn’t right, you can always move!”

Meanwhile, Sophia’s sibling, Liv, is leaving a girlfriend, an action sport scene they are thriving in and a recently found friend group so perfect I thought to myself, “they’ve found their people.” Their go-to answer to the question, “Are you excited for college?” is “Excited is a strong word.” Liv get points for candor and brevity, the soul of wit. 

Mom is also worried about what next year will look like

As for me, I’m marching conscientiously toward the move-in-date, lip quivering as I make lists, book flights and spend time in Parents of Class of 27 Facebook groups. The kids have put me in charge of dorm decor (“just don’t make it pink,” Liv offered, not looking up from their phone), which kept me occupied for a while. And I wake at 4 am spiraling about a life skill I have 3 more weeks to teach them. “Yes, we went over tire-changing. They’ll be fine!” says my husband, Steve, who will always get points for optimism and being in denial.  

Usually when I’d admit how the summer was flying, my heart was getting heavier and the kids already felt like they were pulling away (which is, I am aware, as it should be), Steve would stick to some version of “It’s a natural evolution! They’ll be fine! We’ll be great!”

Then, late in the evening on Independence Day, after the fireworks were over and he’d swept away the ashes on our driveway from the sparklers he’d given the neighborhood kids because ours were away for senior beach week, he turned to me and admitted: “I just got really sad. Tonight it hit me that they’re going to be gone and things won’t be the same.”

That night I surprised myself by being the one who said: “Yes they will and no they won’t and that’s a good and natural thing.” And I let my lip quiver right in front of him. 

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