A Firstborn Leaves for College

And a mom obsesses over packing. Here's why.

by Deidre Toole | Updated 25 Aug 2015 at 7:22 AM

The bins were neatly lined up against the walls of our dining room and labeled with love and care.

In each one, I had carefully placed items I thought were crucial for my son’s first year of college. The boxes of toothpaste, contact lens solution, laundry detergent and other items were organized in the clear plastic bins, yet it still seemed like I was missing something.

Wouldn’t he need a flashlight and extra batteries in case the power went out? How about thank you notes with books of stamps in case Grandma sent money? He would need a lint roller, right?

Wouldn’t he need a flashlight and extra batteries in case the power went out? How about thank you notes with books of stamps in case Grandma sent money?

My husband rolled his eyes every time he walked by the dining room, yet I continued to add more items. A first-aid kit, sunscreen, cleaning supplies. I was starting to spiral out of control. Cleaning supplies? What was I thinking?

When I asked my son at the beginning of the summer what he needed for college, he said he was all set. Even though the school had provided a long list of things to bring, my son said he didn’t need any of it. His idea of “packing” was throwing everything in a duffle bag with his toothbrush the night before he was leaving. Oh, and he wanted the new printer and small fridge.

Related: How to Thrive in College

His lack of enthusiasm did not dissuade me. Looking back, I think all those items were in lieu of actually putting myself into the duffle bag. Each time I placed another item in the bins, it helped me feel like I was putting a little bit of “Mom” in there, too.

Finally the first day of college arrived. We pulled into a spot in front of his dorm to unload the overpacked SUV and were welcomed by cheerful upperclassmen in neon shirts ready to help get my son moved in.

I thought I was doing fine until I walked into the reception filled with other parents.

Before we knew it, our son said he would be going off to a student orientation and that parents were to report to the dining hall for a reception (probably so that we would not linger in the dorm rooms and start to unpack).

I thought I was doing fine until I walked into the reception filled with other parents.

As I looked around at these other moms and dads, mostly in their late 40s and 50s, I realized I was one of them. Time had not stood still and I was saying goodbye to my firstborn. I ran out of the room, found a quiet bench and burst into tears.

Eventually I pulled myself together and went back to the parent group. I had survived the first day of college.

When we arrived back home I quickly sent an email to my son telling him how much I loved him and wished him good luck. No response. After more unanswered emails and unreturned texts, I started to panic.

Related: The Truth about Freshman Year

Was he OK? Why wasn’t he returning my messages? Did I forget to pack something he needed in those bins?

Finally, after a few days, I sent him a text asking if he needed money. (This was a tip I received from a wise parent who had had trouble reaching her son in college.) Within seconds I received a response and I knew my guy was fine.

As the year went on, I slowly realized that his lack of communication meant he was busy making friends and having a normal college experience. Maybe it meant he was surviving without us and doing just fine.

When my son finally returned home after his first year, he brought back a huge duffle bag filled with dirty laundry, a now broken printer, and all those bins. As I opened their covers I was shocked to see that all the things I had lovingly packed had barely been touched.

Pack as many bins as you need. With every little item we are saying a soft goodbye.

The packages of toothpaste and contact solution were unopened. The flashlight was still in its package. Not one thank you note or stamp had been used (or even touched). I thought back to those summer months when I was packing everything. In fairness, he had told me he didn’t need anything. If I am honest with myself, I know I was doing the packing for me.

If you are one of those crazy parents packing up your sons or daughters right about now and dropping them off at college, my advice is pack as many bins as you need. With every little item we are saying a soft goodbye. If you are very blessed, you will find that parenting has its seasons.

Spring is the birth, summer is the growth, fall is the letting go. I guess we are in the fall of parenting. Winter is still a long way off (if time doesn’t fly).

If your child doesn’t call, email, or text you as much as you want, try to be happy. He or she can survive without you, can take care of himself or herself. Congratulations for this! You have raised a human being who is striving to be an adult and a person who fills your heart with pride.

Next summer, the packing should be a whole lot easier.

  1. college
  2. school
  3. kids
  4. mothers
  5. parenting

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