How To Drop Off Your Teenager at College
by Josh Noem
We’ve been walking with our eldest son, Oscar, through the college application process for the past year, and were thrilled when he got into his college of choice. This past week, we moved him into his dorm and said goodbye—a gut-wrenching moment in any family.
Here’s one thing I learned about how to make this an easier transition: There’s no way to make it an easy transition.
I saw this moment coming for the past year and thought I could get ahead of the sadness it would take to let him go. I savored dinners where we were all around the table; I took advantage of quiet moments in the days he was home to connect; I wandered into his room and had conversations with him. I thought all of this would prepare me to leave him at college.
On move-in day, we had one last thing to get into his room—a recliner for him to read in. He and I lugged it into the hall at 10 p.m. When we arrived, his roommate was talking with two other freshmen in the room. We dropped the chair in place, then he turned to me and said, “Okay, thanks. Bye.” I gave him a high-five and walked out and he shut the door. That was it.
He didn’t mean it in a curt or insensitive way—he was just settled in and ready to engage his new life. The fellas were hanging out! I wasn’t offended—I was glad he wanted to hang out with the fellas! We had the rest of the orientation weekend ahead of us, too, so this wasn’t goodbye-goodbye. But it was the first point of separation.
But I was sad. It washed over me all at once when that door closed. I stood in the hall and took a deep breath and realized, “Oh, this is gonna hurt.”
I wandered downstairs and, because he’s at a Catholic school (thanks be to God), there was a chapel by the entrance. It was dark and quiet, being 10 p.m. on move-in day, so I was glad to find refuge there. I stepped in and sat down in a pew and just cried.
I thought of all the ways that Oscar has impacted and shaped our lives, and was filled with such gratitude. I remembered the day we discovered he was expanding our family—we were living in Alaska and I had been out early that morning catching salmon (like one does in Alaska) and Stacey pulled me into the bathroom when I got back and showed me the pregnancy test and I nearly passed out.
From that moment on, we’ve oriented our whole lives around providing for him and his future. And here he was, taking his first step into it. I was so happy for him to move forward in that way. And yet I’m so sad that it means he’s moving away from us.
Of course, he’ll be coming home. Of course, we’ll communicate regularly. He’s not gone—he’s just stepping out farther into the world and starting to find his own way. It’s time for him to do that—I get it. He needs his own space to make his own decisions and live with the consequences, good and bad. I’ve seen that for the past year-and-a-half. I’m glad he’s there.
But he leaves a hole in our daily family routine. We only set four plates at the table now. His room is dark when we tuck everyone in at night. His brother and sister have only each other to tease to the point of tears.
The biggest hole he leaves is in the ways he shaped our lives around love. I’ve always said that marriage is a huge step we take in learning how to live unselfishly, and we take an equally commensurate step when a child is born. They change our center of gravity, and, painful as that can be sometimes—late nights when they were little, for example, or late nights when they are older—it’s a gift. It’s a transformative gift.
I’m sure this transition will be a gift as well—it will clear room for him to grow, and for us to grow in new ways, too. Right now, we’re still mourning what has been, but I have faith that it will happen.
A note from the editor: Stacey wrote her perspective on the weekend in the Noem’s subsequent blog post.