November 3, 2020 By Christine Burke
Thoughts Every Parent of a High School Senior Is Having Right Now
From the moment the nurse placed him in my arms, I was keenly aware that my son was mine on loan. I knew he would leave me someday, but as I inhaled his new-baby scent, that big good-bye felt far off. We had years ahead of us, and the gift of time was infinite, it seemed.
Those years vanished in the blink of an eye. These days, I’m on the side of parenting where—suddenly—every moment feels attached to a long good-bye; it’s the side where I stop in the middle of my kitchen and realize that college drop-off is on the horizon. And I have a running litany of thoughts, ranging from reasonable concern to absolute panic.
Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has upended everything I had hoped for my son as we head into the finish line of high school, my thoughts have turned to how he’ll look back on this time. And how I’ll remember it, too.
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It seems like just yesterday we were looking for preschools and now we have to start looking for colleges. Like, yesterday. Why did we wait so long? I know I’m not the only one in the college search panic, either. Nowadays, instead of discussing potty training, sleep schedules, and toddler tantrums, my friends and I discuss FAFSA form nightmares, the Common App, and SAT scores.
But, even with all of the worry and discussion over completing his application, I keep wondering how our son is supposed to decide on a college when we can’t even take a tour?
And applying as an early decision candidate feels different this year, too. It’s almost become a joke between my husband and me, “Early decision? Yeah right. How about, ‘Let’s get him to narrow his search down to five colleges.’ Or, better yet, ‘Let’s get him to actually put his clothes in the hamper.’”
I had been warned this time was coming, but I didn’t heed the warning. Parents of high schoolers used to look at my toddlers ruefully and tell me I’d miss the days when you could contain them in a crib at night. Parents of teens would stop me in the grocery store to comment on how much they loved chubby baby feet and the phrase I came to hate: “The days are long, but the years are short.”
Some days, if I look just right, I can still see the little boy who wore footie pj’s and carried a Thomas the Tank Engine figure everywhere. And it seems like Facebook is trying to remind me every day that my son was able to attend homecoming with a huge group of friends just last year.
No, seriously, where did the time go? Because I just saw my toddler pulling out of the driveway to head to his part-time job.
A College Far from Home
A few months ago, as we sat on the beach watching the sun melt into the water at the end of the day, my son looked over at me and said, “Ma, I have some news. I think I’ve found a college I really love.” At first, I was overjoyed: no one tells you how hard it is to motivate a teenager to do a thorough college search, so the fact that he’d done any research at all was cause for celebration.
But when he added, “The college is in California,” my heart ached and I willed my eyes not to overflow. As he waited expectantly for my response, I searched his face for the little boy who used to tell me he wanted to build a house next door so he’d never have to leave.
Where has the time gone? Every time he mentions moving across the country, his eyes light up. He looks … excited. Happy. Hearing him say, “I’m excited to leave home and explore the world” feels like a gut punch. What if I can’t let go when I hug him in his dorm room on move-in day?
Why didn’t anyone tell me how fast time flies?
Learning to Let Go
Senior year is here, and I’m finally realizing what letting go means: saying good-bye, one day at a time. I know that if I want to hold him tight then I have to let him go but forgive me for making his favorite meals often and sneaking into his room to tuck him in at night.
He’ll be leaving soon, and I have to get ready to wave to the back of his head, much like I did on his first day of preschool.
When I think about the order of things and the way his transition to college should go, do I really want to hold him back? Do I want him to be filled with sadness or regret about the choice he’s made because I selfishly couldn’t let go? I think we all know the answer.
So, what will I do between now and the time he leaves?
I’ll slip him a $20 here and there for gas. I will smile at the sight of him laughing with his sister at the dinner table and I’ll refrain from telling them to quiet down.
I’ll tell myself that someday soon, he’ll be gracing our front door with a giant laundry sack slung over his shoulder, and his room will stand empty save a few childhood mementos he left behind.
And, I’m going to learn to start saying, “See you later, son,” rather than “Goodbye.”
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