Embracing a New Normal After a Child Leaves for College

I’ve decided sending a kid to college – in terms of how moms and dads handle it – is a lot like having a baby.

For an expectant mom, the entire duration of pregnancy is all consuming with physical and emotional effects felt from the onset. But while women obsess over the growing fetus, the details of the nursery, and what the adjustment of a new baby in the home will entail, while men don’t seem to translate the nine long months of pregnancy into the new reality to come. Sure, they see the physical signs as the months go by, but it takes delivery day for it to hit home. At least this is how it was for our family, and having a high school senior was no different.

From the end of our daughter’s junior year through the summer after graduation, her leaving for college was a dark hovering cloud for me. College visits, applications, senior pictures, yearbook page submission, ordering caps and gowns, acceptance letters, graduation announcements, parties, presents, dorm purchases – something loomed in front of me all the time to remind me time was drawing near. At any given moment (sometimes in strange places and for odd reasons) I would be overwhelmed with emotion, like the time I had to bolt from my workout class because every burpee brought with it a tear. This had become my normal.

Until delivery day (aka move-in day) my husband’s emotions had not kicked in. But afterwards, he was the one who experienced the “post-partum” depression. Not that I was suddenly fine, but I had a good head start dealing with the changes we then felt full on. In the same way a new baby’s arrival affects the entire family, our whole family had to learn a new normal. Our two teenage boys and even our dog, who was often found curled up by her bed in her empty room those first few weeks, grieved her missing presence.

Now a year has passed and I’m getting ready to move her back in again. This time is different though. We have figured out what it’s like to do life as a family of four. Don’t get me wrong: we miss her when she’s not with us, but some sweet changes have also taken place in our home.

For one, I’ve learned to embrace my “boy-mom” status. When my daughter was still in the home I often did things with her – attending her activities, shopping and other girl things – while my husband did the boys’ things. Dividing and conquering when you have more than one child is typical, but for us this meant I wasn’t always at the boys’ games or practices and hadn’t gotten involved with the booster clubs and with other parents from my boys’ teams. In thinking about it now, most of my friends were moms of her friends. And while they are still my friends, I have widened my circles as a boy mom now. More importantly, I’m more present for my boys. Not just by going to more of their activities, but being more in tune to their needs and taking the time to engage more fully in their worlds and with their hearts and minds.

Another noticeable change that has taken place is the relationships between the siblings. When my daughter was still in high school she was so busy with her own activities that she rarely was able (or rarely prioritized) to attend her brothers’ events or spend downtime with them. But now when she comes home all three of them look forward to sibling bonding adventures. No parents allowed, and I love it! I love they are making time for meaningful conversations and fun memories together.

The natural shift in relationship with her being gone has served us well too. Toward the end of her senior year she felt like all I did was nag her, and it was sort of true, though I liked to think I was helping to ensure she did everything she was supposed to do. Regardless of my intention, it was driving her crazy and making her ready to move away from me. As it is with her gone, I don’t know when she has a test, what thank you note she might need to write, or whose phone call she needs to return, and it’s bliss. Not that I ever did have control, but now I know I don’t.

So on one hand I’m freed from worrying about everyday tasks for my daughter, while at the same time I am being forced to learn more of what it looks like to trust God with my child. On both accounts it’s good. I love seeing my daughter flourish as God is growing her to be independent of me, while at the same time more dependent on him. He is helping me believe better the promises of his word. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:9)

As for my husband – who is thankfully out of the “post-partum” stage – he has seen his little Daddy’s girl come back around. For a time during the teen years, she had pushed him out. But he never stopped pursuing her and now he is the one she seeks out for advice. In fact, at times when she and I are on the phone and spiritual amnesia gets the best of me as I revert back to trying to take control of things, it is then she simply says, “Can I talk to Dad now?” It hasn’t hurt my feelings. It actually makes me really thankful. So we have found our new normal (until the next child goes off) and all really is well with my soul.

Kristen Hatton holds a master’s in counseling and works primarily with teen girls, parents and families. She is the author of Parenting AheadThe Gospel-Centered Life in Exodus for StudentsFace Time: Your Identity in a Selfie World, and Get Your Story Straight. Kristen and her pastor husband reside in Dallas, Texas and are the parents of three young adults and a son-in-law. Learn more by visiting her website at www.kristenhatton.com.

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