When Victoria Dawson flew last week from Washington to Boulder, Colorado, to drop off her daughter Ellie for her freshman year of college, she and Ellie’s father saw it as a chance for some final quality time together. But in the middle of breakfast, their daughter disappeared into a nearby shopping area. She returned with a gift bag – not a goodbye memento for her mother or father, but a birthday present for a new dorm mate she’d never met.
It was jarring for Dawson, who was feeling sad about leaving her daughter, and she told her so. “Basically I said she’s going to have weeks and months and probably years to go out and be with these people,” she said.
The moment epitomized a rocky rite of passage many families across the country are enduring this summer as one phase of life ends and another begins. This brief interlude, between high school graduation and the college move-in days of August and early September, can be surprisingly bittersweet.
After intense years of focusing on grades, extracurriculars and college applications, families suddenly face the end of life together as it’s been for 18-odd years. For parents and kids, the impending separation brings new freedoms, but it also can upend family dynamics as children pull away in subtle and not-so-subtle ways and parents struggle to let them go.
“It can be a pretty stressful time for both generations,” said Barbara Mitchell, a sociology professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. “Moms, often their identities as mothers are very much tied up into daily mothering activities ... and recent research shows dads can often have attachment crises similar to moms’.”
Even the country’s First Father has expressed anxiety this year about his older daughter Malia graduating and leaving home. And “Modern Family” producer Danny Zuker tweeted last week, “My twin girls left 4 college this week but I’m trying to stay positive as I start this exciting new chapter of my life where I wait to die.”
While most young people don’t view it as darkly, the summer between high school and college can feel like a roller coaster for them, too. “On some days, it’s this exciting adventure ahead of them, but at the same time you’re leaving friends and family and a familiar routine. ... That can be a scary thing,” Mitchell said.
Robert Shea of Alexandria, Virginia, has seen that duality in his oldest daughter, who will start at New York University this week.
“Our headstrong, independent daughter, you see a little weepiness creeping in,” he said. “She’s got a very close relationship with her sisters, so she’s worrying about missing them. She’s also seeing her very close friends leave in succession, so that’s a very traumatic, dramatic experience.”
At the same time, he said, she recently has been even more headstrong than usual, wanting to stay out late with her friends and chafing at parental instruction.
“I think she’s torn between wanting to be really free and being afraid of what freedom looks like, so she’s breaking away and clinging at the same time.”
For both generations, the angst has intensified since the 1980s, “when kids just went off to college without nearly the fanfare it attracts today,” said Frank Furstenberg, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, adding the portion of American 18-year-olds who go away to university still is a minority compared with those who commute from home or don’t attend college at all.
“Today a college transition bears more freight,” he said. “Obviously, the far more intensive style of parenting these days where parents monitor and manage far more for a much longer time means that the ‘empty nest’ or even the penultimate empty nest is more emotionally salient than it was in previous postwar cohorts of young adults.”
Technology also has helped young adults start their college social lives before they leave home. Dawson’s daughter, Ellie Le Blanc, “has used social media to set up a sense of community even before she arrived,” Dawson said in a phone call from Boulder. “She’s set up chats with people in her dorm, with people from the Washington area. I think it’s neat. It gives her a kind of sense of community, but it’s hard. I didn’t expect to have to vie with them for her attention and time before we even left.”
Parents with just one child also can feel the college drop-off even more intensely, since they go from life as they’ve known it directly to an empty house.
“What has consumed the last about 19 years of my life has been my son, and now that has ended, to a point,” said Alisa Myatt of Charles Town, West Virginia, a week after dropping off her only child, Tyler, at West Virginia University in Morgantown. “Now I’m like almost not a mom anymore, because I’m not going to be mothering.”
At the drop-off, “my husband and I were standing on the street weeping,” she said. “He handled it much harder than I thought he would. He was in the street just sobbing. He said, ‘He’s my buddy.’ ”
Tyler, on the other hand, simply seemed excited.
Likewise, when her parents finally hugged her goodbye in Boulder on Thursday, Le Blanc, 17, didn’t let herself cry. “It was definitely emotional, but I was about to go have a floor meeting in my dorm, so I didn’t really have time for all the emotions.”
On Friday morning, Leslie Schwager of Kensington, Maryland, blinked back tears as her 18-year-old son, Adam, sat in the kitchen eating his last bowl of cereal before college.
She had spent the summer dreading this day.
“You’re preparing your child for college and you’re so focused on getting good grades and college applications that you forget that they’re going to be gone in a short period of time and it just went by so fast.”
In retrospect, “I think I would have stepped back and trusted him more and been less of a helicopter parent.” But at the same time, she razzes him to put a cot in his dorm room for her.
Adam, whose last weeks were spent lifeguarding and hanging out with friends, said he wasn’t too concerned about leaving. “It’s not like I’m moving out,” he said. “I’m thinking of it more like extended vacation; maybe that’s how I cope.”
The car was all packed for Schwager, her husband, Stuart, and their two younger sons to drive Adam to Kenyon College in Ohio. But first she had one last surprise – a care package for his dorm room.
He pulled out gifts one by one. A tea-maker. A hot-water boiler. A phone charger. Then he saw something his brother Justin, 15, had slipped in: an old photograph of Adam as a toddler, lying with his infant brother wrapped in his arms, protecting him.
Looking at it, Adam’s eyes filled and he went silent.
“You okay, bud?” his dad said.
“Yeah,” he said softly. Then, with a teenager’s eye-roll, he quipped: “Now I have to pack all this stuff.”