Sorry Not Sorry: When A First Kid Goes to College

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Katie Workman with Gary and son Jack in front of college.

It’s been a couple of weeks since my older son Jack headed off to school a plane ride away. And it’s been a couple of weeks of lovely, concerned people asking about how he likes it so far, and then leaning in and asking, “And how are you doing?”

Sorry Not Sorry: When A First Kid Goes to College

I don’t quite know how to answer this. I usually say something about being just so busy with work and other things, and make a joke about being a master at denial, and that visiting weekend is mere weeks away. I certainly know that after flying home I flung myself into a storm of activity and busy-ness with the kind of force usually used for planning things like military coups. And I shoved the thought of being one kid down, the beginning of a truer, more permanent separation, into a dark cubby in my brain.

But recently I had breakfast with a friend and we talked about this process, and we talked about all of the moments—good and bad—that lead up to the moment where you first say “good-bye” in a different way than ever before.

I told her that the night before he left, he said jokingly (brace yourself) “Well, I guess I’ll walk the dog for the last time.”  He left to walk around the block with Gary and the pup, and I flung myself onto my bed, wailing. Charlie, my 15-year old came running to see this full-on meltdown, and while I sobbed, “I wish I could do it again! There are so many things I didn’t do well enough, and now it’s over and I suck and I wish I had another chance to be a better parent!”  He shushed me and patted my hair (while, I found out later, texting Gary and Jack to hustle on home because mommy had lost it completely.)

Jack came in and took Charlie place rubbing my back and saying nice things like, “Yes, sure we fought, but there was so much more.”  I sobbed some more, and also now got to cry about the fact that I was behaving like a total baby when I should be being supportive and maternal hours before his departure. I SUCK! I am THE WORST MOM EVER!

And then he said something that made my bruised little heart bump. He said, “Mom, I’m leaving this house knowing that you are proud of me, and that you’ve been proud of me always. Not every kid can say that, I promise you.”

Do you think that made me stop crying or cry harder? Yes, you are correct.

After this friend breakfast, I started thinking of all of the things I felt sorry about as a parent, and also the things I felt glad about. And I wrote some of them down. This list is the tip of the iceberg, and it’s really about both of my boys, individually and collectively.

  1. I’m glad we set curfews, even though we were “the only parents who did”.
  2. I’m glad we made you do your own laundry, bring the trash out, and clean up the dog’s miscellaneous bodily fluids from the carpet.
  3. I’m glad we talked about drinking and drugs and birth control. I hope it all sunk in pretty well. Fingers crossed.
  4. And being gentle and respectful of the person you are dating.
  5. I’m glad I urged you to call that girl who drank too much at a party and asked how she was feeling when she felt sick and embarrassed the day after.
  6. I’m really glad you did it so readily.
  7. I’m sorry I missed Greek festival in 7th grade, Jack, because I was on a work trip.
  8. And, Charlie, I’m sorry we missed your freshman homecoming because we were dropping your older brother at school.
  9. I’m sorry I didn’t look up from the computer more when you were talking.
  10. I’m sorry that I was hypocritical about my screen time being more justified than yours.
  11. I’m sorry I was so quick to anger so much of the time.
  12. I’m glad we made you shake people’s hands and look them in the eye when you met them
  13. I’m sorry I couldn’t watch violent movies with you guys, or even suspenseful tv shows.
  14. And that when I did I made so many very irritating gasping noises.
  15. I’m glad you both have an inner cores of kindness and empathy that will ground you into the future.
  16. I’m sorry I was so impatient.
  17. I’m glad I taught you both how to make good vinaigrette, and despite what you think Jack, I do think this will set up up nicely for the future.
  18. I’m sorry that when you were little I didn’t spend more time playing legos.
  19. (That f*cking Cat’s in the Cradle Song is just so accurate.)
  20. I’m sorry I wasn’t in the moment enough.
  21. I’m very glad you are my sons.

And the list goes on and on and on…. and on…. and some of the sorries are much deeper, and some are just regular old sorries. And no, we don’t get to do it again. Which is another thought that I am shoving into a dark little nook in my brain.

first child going to college
Yes, I am wearing sunglasses for a reason.

But I will keep the part about him knowing I am proud of him in the front of my brain, on a high pedestal and I will polish that thought regularly. And I will shove the knowledge that Charlie will be heading off in 3 years into yet another deep hiding place, and try to add some more “I’m glads” to my list.

coping when your oldest kid goes off to college
Still have this one for 3 more years…..

About Katie Workman

Katie Workman is a cook, a writer, a mother of two, an activist in hunger issues, and an enthusiastic advocate for family meals, which is the inspiration behind her two beloved cookbooks, Dinner Solved! and The Mom 100 Cookbook.

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  1. Becca says:

    Looks like Wildcat Welcome, post March through the Arch! Hope he has a great four years, my oldest son just graduated from NU in June!

    1. Katie Workman says:

      thank you!!

  2. Krista Matheson says:

    Oh Katie, this made me cry. I know exactly how you feel. My oldest left, then my middle one, and now the only one left at home just turned 18 in August….The only people who truly understand are other moms who have recently lost the young nesters, or moms who are about to have one fly away. It is heartbreaking and at the same time, yes we are so proud of them. And they won’t ever truly know what it’s like until they have young ones of their own. At least it’s a good thing that we lost them one at a time :)….it does get easier with time, I promise. But it still lingers, for how long, I can’t say…I’ve not reached that point yet.

    1. Katie Workman says:

      I know…it’s hard! but he’s calling a lot, so that makes me happy. xoxo

  3. Elizabeth says:

    I love you , Katie. You summed up so much of what I have been feeling.

    1. Katie Workman says: