How I survived the shock of dropping my kid off at college

As the first of five children, Emily was my guinea pig for every new stage of motherhood. Now, I'm coping with her absence by leaning into the dread and embracing change.
by Kathleen Kenehan /
Image: Packing
Loading boxes into car.Westend61 / Getty Images
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We’ve fed them all of their fruits and vegetables. Bandaged bumps and bruises. Taught them right from wrong. Attended endless parent-teacher conferences. Reminded them to never, ever talk to strangers. Then we cheer as these fresh-faced, 18-year-old kids graduate from high school, pack up all their favorite belongings in the family car and drop them off and leave them to their own devices among a world of strangers. I am now officially experiencing the perils of parenting: part two.

As a working single mother of five incredible children, I survived my first experience with the emotional roller coaster of freshman year drop-off. I recently deposited my first-born, Emily, to The Ohio State University where she plans to pursue a degree in molecular biology and genetics. Her ultimate goal is to become an orthopedic surgeon in the pediatric field — no worries on goal setting for my type A child.

I began asking myself how I might weather day-to-day life without the only child that has been with me through every step of the hills and valleys of motherhood?

I was filled with a mixture of pride and dread throughout the entire month leading up to this long-awaited day. Did she pack too much? Was she going to make good friends? (I always tell my kids you truly are the company you keep!) As I watched her vacuum pack her entire wardrobe into miniature transportable packs and stood stunned at her bedroom door as she checked off her exhaustive list of “to dos” before she left for school, I started to get a bigger ache in my chest. How did this day arrive so fast? I began asking myself how I might weather day-to-day life without the only child that has been with me through every step of the hills and valleys of motherhood? Observing me sullen in her doorway, she knew I was having a parenting “moment,” as I often tell Emily that she has to be extra patient with me since I’m practicing everything out on her since she was my first. And, let’s face it, there really is no owner’s manual for sleep-deprived moms bringing home a warm bundle from the hospital.

Thankfully, my high school-aged daughter Haley was willing to provide me with emotional (and driving) support and squeezed into the packed-to-the-brim SUV for the long drive from Chicago to Columbus. We played favorite songs, talked about Emily’s room setup ideas and laughed about how our English bulldog Hope would miss her other “mommy.” Aside from my initial tear-filled mini-breakdown in the Starbucks line three blocks from our driveway (where I emotionally told the barista about my firstborn leaving me) it was a jovial time in the car ride to Ohio. Yet, in the back of my mind (and in my heart), I was preparing for that dreaded hug goodbye.

Image: Kathleen and Emily Henson
Kathleen Kenehan and her daughter Emily Henson on drop-off day.Courtesy Kathleen Kenehan

When we arrived on campus, Ohio State greeted us with a phenomenal Big Ten welcome and an impressively orchestrated move-in process to usher the 7,000 eager freshman and their families to the multitude of dorms. Emily quickly worked with the university’s move-in crew to get her belongings into her room and we did quite an efficient job unpacking before her new roommate arrived. The whole time, however, I was becoming more painfully aware that I was about to leave her. That I wouldn’t have her be just a bedroom (or kitchen holler) away. That we couldn’t watch a Netflix show or get our nails done at a moment’s notice on the weekend. That this was finally the adult evolution of our relationship.

When it was time to say farewell, I tried to make it both brief and positive but we both shed tears. Okay, I also have to admit that I did run back down the hallway for one more long hug goodbye. My other daughter Haley made the six-hour ride home both peaceful and tolerable for her emotionally-raw mother and even assured me that Emily would be fine, as would I. (When did 15-year-olds get so wise?)

This was finally the adult evolution of our relationship.

I offer the following observations for any parent who has recently been in my shoes as they transition their first child to college:

Sure, They’re in College…But They Still Need Us

I’m quickly finding that even though Emily is 377 miles away, she still is in daily contact. I have set a limit of reaching out to her proactively to once a day but have made myself available whenever she needs to call or Facetime. I am finding it a healthy boundary to give her space to be on her own, but greatly enjoy when she calls me or texts me photos of her day’s adventures running across campus to chem lab. I imagine it’s quite a lot to process navigating a huge campus, a full course load and the dynamics of a co-ed floor.

They Need to Learn To Fly (and Fail) Without a Net

I have always explained my parenting philosophy with a bowling analogy. Parents (and caregivers) provide the bumper rails elementary school through high school. Likely, there are going to be lots of wild balls and some spares and strikes along the way, too. When your child enters college, they should be bowling more than a few strikes and spares without much use of those trusty bumpers…but we’re still there just in case they need us. And upon graduation of college, those bumpers are gone and they’re finally bowling their own game and must always strive to improve on their score.

This New Chapter Opens New Doors With Younger Kids

I have never known a day in my life when I wasn’t parenting Emily at a close distance. These past three weeks since college drop off occurred, I’m finding new ways and pockets of time to spend time with my other kids and evolve our individual relationships. One would think with five kids in my home, one child at college wouldn’t feel all that differently. It actually does. There is a giant hole. But I’m embracing the new formation of the four kids at home and how we all manage our busy lives together. And, I like this new normal, too.

As a proud Purdue Boilermaker, I’m intent on having one of my five children attend my alma mater, and I may get my chance when my second-born, John Henry, begins the college application process this fall. Heaven help me, I have to do this all again in less than a year. However, this go around, I plan to lean into the dread and embrace the fact that with change, comes new beginnings in this crazy adventure called parenthood.

Kathleen Kenehan Henson is a contributor to NBC News BETTER and the founder and CEO of Agency H5, an award-winning public relations and integrated marketing firm based in Chicago. She is the mother of five children ages 18-9 and was recently featured in the new book Kindness in Leadership (Gay Haskins, 2018).

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