Wednesday, August 28, 2013

What to Expect When You're Expecting (a college freshman)

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING:  It's that time of year again, dear readers. Back to school - or, in the case of my eldest, back to college. Over the past few years, I've handed out advice on touring campuses, on getting your student into college, and even how to deal with having the kids back for the holiday break.

Tomorrow, Ross and I will be heading down to Hartford, Connecticut, where we will leave The Boy in Trinity College's care for the next four years. (We've done what we can, Trinity - now you take a crack at him.) We will be making this trip in a car packed with more worldly goods than a family of six took on the Oregon Trail. The Boy will be bleary-eyed from staying up until 2 am messaging his hometown friends. And I will still be filling out the last of the approximately 187 forms that are now required to transfer ownership responsibility for your teen. So, obvs, I am the perfect person to tell you, parent of a high school senior, how to handle this important period in your family's life.



1. Start saving those Target gift cards. Seriously. You will walk into your local Target (or Walmart) with the intention of getting your incoming freshman a pair of flip flops for the shower and some sheets. You will stagger out again four hours later, having spent $341 on a mini-fridge, underbed storage bins, a bed-in-a-bag set, folding chair (with coordinating lamp,) shower caddy, backpack laundry bag, a throw rug and an over-the-door whiteboard organizer.

I never thought of myself as one of those parents until I found myself trying to ensure my son's cinder-block dorm room could pass for a suite at the Hyatt. You know what I took to college with me? A hot pot and a three-gallon jug of laundry detergent! (Which I also got for my son. And stain remover. I stopped myself from buying the expandable drying rack.) I probably should have followed my mother's advice. When I went away to Ithaca, she said, "You have to live in your room for a while before you'll know what you really need." In this instance, you should probably listen to her, unless you can convince yourself that you'll decorate with multi-colored milk boxes if your kid finds she doesn't use them.

2. Bookmark those college sites and save your kid's user name and password. Unsurprisingly for institutes of higher learning, colleges want to share information with you and your matriculating student. Lots and lots of information. There will be the email service and the student portal, the financial aid page and the ebill pay site, the incoming student update list, the bookstore text list, the pdfs from professors and TAs list...  you and your student will find yourself muttering across the dining room table as you each attempt to navigate the labyrinth from your respective laptops. Save every one as you locate it, and the next time you need the orientation schedule, you'll have it in a thrice, leaving more time for important things, like telling your kid to for God's sake get off the YouTube jazz channel and start packing already.

3 Make time for those little, practical life lessons. You will be amazed to discover that the same teen who took three AP courses and hit the 95th  percentile on the SATs doesn't know how to use a washing machine. Or write a return address on a letter. Or balance a checking account (to be fair, I still don't know how to do this.) The Boy and I spent a half hour practice-sorting pieces of clothing, an exercise that looked a lot like vocational training for a severely intellectually-disabled adult. "What about khaki?" "What do you think?" "Uh... colors?"

I don't care how self-sufficient you've made your children; unless you're part of the Swiss Family Robinson, I guarantee your kid is missing out on some everyday skill that you assume everybody over the age of, say, three, knows. Did you know you have to teach your kids how to look up a phone number? See what the internet has wrought.

4. Try to keep an even keel. Living with a teen in the last weeks before her college life begins is like sitting in on Uta Hagen's master class in acting: tears! anxiety! arrogance! bravado! impatience! And that's all before your kid's had breakfast (at 11:30a.m.)  You, as a parent, will be feeling all of those (plus exciting midlife symptoms such as hot flash! indigestion! bad back!) You need to breath it out and not let things escalate into a free-for-all where you and your chick attempt to peck each other to death before he can escape the nest.

I am convinced the last month of the summer before matriculation is like the end of pregnancy: before that point, you were worried and overwhelmed and a little scared of the future. In the ninth month, however, you just want to get that kid out. So it is with August.

5. When the big day arrives, remember...it's not really your big day. Try to be as unobtrusively supportive as you can as your freshman navigates registration, the moving in process, and whatever other ceremonies and entertainments the college is putting on. (Trinity has a convocation and presidential address in the quad and we get to watch! I'm very excited.) At this point, you're  probably going to be feeling quite sentimental (taking out eldest to Smith for the first time, I had to drive because her father kept weeping when certain songs came on the radio.) But for your child, it's all looking ahead. Here and now is the start of his future. That's what you've all been working for for so long, right?

6. LEAVE at the appointed time. (And yes, wise college administrations all set appointed times nowadays.) It's okay to sit in the parking lot until you're done crying. We've all done it. And remember, Family Weekend is only a couple months away...

29 comments:

Joan Emerson said...

I am laughing even as I nod my head in agreement over the wise truth in these words. Of course, if you’re desperate enough, you can skip the laundry color-sorting lessons and simply add Shout Color Catcher sheets to the overflowing Target basket. As for the phone book, I fear that may be a lost cause . . . the books we get here these days aren’t even worthy door-stops. As for actually finding the phone number you need in them . . . well, nah, that’s not going to happen. Save yourself the aggravation and just look it up on the Internet . . . .

Darlene Ryan said...

We're two years away from college. (How did that happen?)

Thanks, Julia. I'll remember your words.

Edith Maxwell said...

So funny, and all so true. Both of mine were doing their own laundry well before college, so we didn't have that particular issue. One was happy for me to unpack his stuff, the other one said, "Mom, I'll do it." I wept all the way home, for sure. But now they are out and launched, happy, healthy, and productive. So this, too, shall pass!

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Wonderful Julia--I'm sure he'll be an amazing adult! congrats to you and Ross. xoxo

Anonymous said...

I cried the entire three and a half hour ride home. To me, this seemed normal. To my eighth grader in the back seat, it was alarming. So much so that she attended college five years later LOCALLY. Good grief! Molly Campbell

Marianne in Maine said...

This is great! I loved reading this - and chuckling. And don't worry about his laundry. I'm sure he'll bring some home on his first visit.

Today is the first day of school in our area and my Facebook feed is full of pictures of kids heading off on their new adventures. So much potential!

Laura DiSilverio said...

Julia, you absolutely slay me when you write about kid-raising and college. It's so much my own experience. We're embarking on the college search/visits/auditions with Elder this year. (She's a junior.) Wish us luck (or an understanding doctor willing to freely prescribe anti-anxiety medication).

Hallie Ephron said...

Laughed and laughed reading this, Julia! My kids were annoyed with me for never teaching them to do laundry... I also made their lunches and they complained because I wrapped the sandwiches in wax paper.

Let's hear it for the old axiom: No good deed goes unpunished!

Anonymous said...

I've sent four daughters off to college and each experience was so similar to yours. Except no crying in the car afterwards, just celebrating. My big thing is to make up the bed. Probably the only time they were made up until we went to visit at Parent's Weekend! The worst was moving 2 in on the same weekend, one in Boston and one in New Hampshire.

Kristi said...

Fabulous advice, Julia! I wish we'd had it waybackwhen... I'm pretty sure Mom and I thought we were the only people in the history of the world to go through those things. She was so brave, bless her heart. Your son will do great -- take care of yourself as *you* weather this transition!

Karen in Ohio said...

Oh, the laundry. Since my oldest and second are 14 years apart (yes, I'm officially crazy), when the two younger ones were in grade school I taught them to do their own laundry. They weren't especially thrilled about it, and I had to lower my standards considerably, but after watching their older sister bumble around with life skills I was determined they would not have such distractions. My poor oldest, being the guinea pig.

But when the middle daughter went off to college one of the first things she did was to thank me for this long-ago lesson. She found it hilarious to observe her classmates in the dorm laundry rooms, and often had to help her friends.

Now, two of them are in grad school, and the third is contemplating it. When did THAT happen? Enjoy every minute of being with your kids. Once they squirt out of the nest they fly to the four corners of the earth. It takes all my energy to keep up with them these days!

Linda Rodriguez said...

This is fabulous, Julia! And so true! Congratulations to your son and to you and Ross!

The toughest for us was when my youngest headed off to college in London for a year. Stayed up all night packing for him because he couldn't get everything in that he needed--and there were luggage restrictions. Then, though he was supposed to call as soon as he was safely on the ground, we didn't hear from him for three days after his scheduled arrival. Since he'd been strip-searched and hassled at the airport before leaving--young black-haired, brown-skinned male with a non-Anglo-Saxon name flying internationally--we were afraid he was locked up somewhere. We kept calling the office at the university and finally got someone who said he was there safely and would have him call. And he did. His excuse--he couldn't find a payphone.

Mary Robert said...

A friend of mine tells this story about her older sister, who knew nothing about doing laundry when she went off to college. She'd bought a new pair of jeans before she left for school, and by the time she first came home, the jeans were fairly and rank and could stand on their own in the corner. My friend asked her sister why she hadn't washed them at some point. Sister's reply: "Well, the tag said they were pre-washed jeans!"

Lauren Taylor said...

Is that what I put my parents through? I will apologize to them for the emotional roller coaster I subjected them to. But then I will remind that I saved them from the endless Target shopping trip since I was only allowed to bring underwear with me to military school. You're welcome, Mom. =)

Barb Goffman said...

I went to the University of Michigan. Big college town. When I was packing, my mom bought a ton of laundry detergent and toothpaste etc. I said I wouldn't have room for so much and such big sizes. I'd just take a normal amount and buy more when I ran out. She looked at me, alarmed. "You don't know if you'll be able to buy any of this out there," she said. "You're moving to the wilderness."

Jamie Freveletti said...

Loved this! I have a senior and junior so will repeat this process in the next two years. Agree with Joan Emerson--Shout Color Catchers are the ticket to avoiding pink clothes.

Rhys Bowen said...

crying? We went whoo-hoo--another spare room to spread into!
Actually when we took our eldest we were planning to have dinner together in the dining hall but she looked at us about half an hour after we'd arrived and said, "Shouldn't you be driving back?"

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

OH, LOVE this. I remember, I was so terrified...! I had all kinds of nice clothes, but wound up wearing the same thing every day for two years.You just can't plan that stuff.

Mary Robert, that's hilarious!

ANd Julia and Ross remember--plant a carrot, get a carrot. He'll be wonderful! xxo

Lisa Alber said...

Hilarious post. I don't have kids, but I can just imagine--especially the Target shopping spree!

Lysa MacKeen said...

Divine - just perfect! Our first move in was very local so I held it together until a few days after the move and then - waterworks at a local restaurant where we always had a Friday morning family breakfast. I got very good service that day.

Deb said...

Julia, congrats to you and Ross and The Boy!

And too funny. I do remember doing all that with The Daughter.

Now I can't wait for you to write about our current experience, The Wedding:-)

Anonymous said...

Yes, it is a traumatic time. Reigning in one'e anxiety is so hard. Our daughter was going off to college in Switzerland, and we felt as though she was off to Siberia. She was very phlegmatic about the whole thing and told us to straighten up be happy, and don't dare to repaint her room., We cried all the way home from the airport. She phoned next day, and was already telling us to send more money!!!

Brenda Buchanan said...

Hank: Plant a carrot, get a carrot?

If that means Julia and Ross are great parents who have raised a terrific son, I second that.

Best wishes to The Boy, and to you, too.

Brenda B.

Gram said...

Don't worry about the laundry because even if they sort at home, it all gets tossed into one at school! Gram

lil Gluckstern said...

Oh, I remember it well. The second child was driven to Long Beach State from the Bay Area, and it was 101 degrees in L.A. (no air conditioning), and Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker was running around doing his thing, and scaring those of us who worried about this sort of thing. I am not as lady-like as you all. I got her to her dorm, emptied the car, and we said good bye. Leaving the dorm, I stopped at the stop sign and went, oh S---, got teary eyed and made a left. For the first time, I would be living alone.

Reine said...

Congratulations, Julia. Sounds like a good launch!

I still have things from my college bookstore shopping days that we use. That funny little basket that you carry your bathroom items in—back and forth from your room?

And those posters? Remember the kitty hanging by her paws from a tree limb? The caption— Hang in There, Baby... My counselor gave me that. What could ever have motivated her! :) She took me to dinner to celebrate my graduation, then became a sports psychologist for olympic athletes in training...

Micky said...

I went to community college locally. We also have two universities, one in Toledo and one in Bowling Green. I think it's easiest to live at home so you don't have to deal with all those things, but some schools do make you live there.

Lynda said...

OMG, my husband and I just spent the afternoon and evening with our 18 year-old great-niece who's leaving for college on Saturday morning. Rather a complicated story, we're of an age to be her grandparents, and have filled that role emotionally. We've always had an extraordinarily close bond, supporting her in many ways, including paying her way through a private university two states away. Before she left tonight I had her stand in the entryway so I could snap her picture, just as I did when I took her to her first day of kindergarten 13 years ago. Thirteen years?!?!

She knows how to do her own laundry, and rumor has it she can change the sheets on her bed and wash her own dishes, too. She's had a checking account for several months now with no felonies or even misdemeanors. We're hopeful. Since we're providing her with so much, the only things we gave her tonight were a new Sonicare toothbrush, some Elmer's Poster Tack and a Keep Calm & Carry On bookmark. She loved everything, even the dinner I made.

We have no children, and I never went to college, so this's a completely new experience for me. I went on the tour with her in February and thought, "I wanna go to school here!!" It's a fantastic place and we're all hoping she'll love it as much as she seems to now, and that it'll be the school for her. Actually, that's my hope for all new students this school year.

albina N muro said...


We have no children, and I never went to college, so this's a completely new experience for me. I went on the tour with her in February and thought, "I wanna go to school here!!" It's a fantastic place and we're all hoping she'll love it as much as she seems to now, and that it'll be the school for her. website