What I Want My Son to Remember As He Goes Away to College

My oldest son is leaving for college. He’s more than ready. George can’t wait to live with his peers, not his parents. And he really wants to go to school – he’s spent hours reading the course catalog and he’s made a spreadsheet to figure out how to fit in all the classes he’s excited to take.

Our family will miss him. I will miss him. Even when he’s in his most sloppy, forgetful, self-centered teenager moments, George is a person I love to be with and makes our foursome complete. (Yes, I got a little teary putting that into words.)

But when my husband and I drive him a couple of hours away to his new campus home, a dorm-room double in an all-freshman hall, I won’t make his bed.

I recently made this statement to two other moms I know well, both who are delivering their own sons to college this fall. One replied wistfully, “I really want to make his bed for him.” The bed, it seemed, was central to showing him a last bit of mommy love.

“I feel like I should. At least I’ll know that it started out made,” the other said. Making a bed is not rocket science, I thought. Perhaps it’s time he learned.

Somehow this last “bedtime” tuck-in carried meaning for these moms in a way that baffled me. I silently scoffed at their neediness. The bed-making wasn’t going to help out their son. It was going to reinforce the hovering mother (or the privilege of a housekeeper) that had been in their lives for years.

And the bed-making would double down on the stereotype of what a mom needs to do for a son. Smooth the blanket, and tuck the corners in tight. See? Mom is essential. At least this one last time.

I easily get choked up at the thought that George will no longer live closely with us, be home to eat innumerable tacos on Tuesdays, or streak from his room to the laundry in search of clean shorts. But I’ve been trying to make myself dispensable for years. My boys both know how to make a bed and clean a bathroom. They go to the dentist and the doctor on their own. Danny, my 16-year-old, went backpacking solo in June (including driving himself 200 miles each way to the trailhead.)

I will also admit to my own moments of holding on too tightly. I’ve dutifully organized too many duffle bags for summer camp and filled too many lunch boxes. I’ve reminded about deadlines and been a backup alarm clock. I drove George to the SAT so he could save his brain power during the hour drive to the test center. And yes, I made Danny take a GPS emergency device on the solo backpacking trip. (He did forget bug spray, though.)

I know this bed-making thing is a tiny sliver amidst all the fantastic things about launching a kid to college life – especially in an ongoing pandemic. To even get into George’s dorm, we all must take a rapid COVID-19 test. I am crossing all fingers and toes that George’s school can weather the variant storm and still have real college life.

George couldn’t care less about his bed and the furnishings of his dorm. The dorm beds require twin XL size sheets, something we needed to pick up rather than swipe from the supply from our bunk bed days. I asked George to pick some out. Not white, George said. Navy or gray? Shrug.

I’m not sure he will even pack anything very personal, though he’s been a collector of many things over the years. (I’m told his bottle cap collection, arranged carefully with magnets on metal boards on his bedroom wall, will remain here for my enjoyment.) Another mom described to me the carefully curated collage of posters her daughter is bringing from Massachusetts to Michigan. The posters have just the right color combinations and say exactly what she wants to say about who she is and what she cares about without her having to say it.

George might not come up with the artistic idea to use wall art to introduce himself, but he’s far from shy. He’s a big talker. He loves improv theater, and meeting new people is a fun game for him. He’s ready to jump in and start doing what he wants to do: join the rock climbing team, try out for a singing group, and take a class called “How to Survive in Space”.

So how will I be helping George if I complete this expected ritual of bed-making? I won’t. He doesn’t want us to linger. He doesn’t want help in putting away his stuff. My guess is he will live like college is temporary, like summer camp, running from activity to class to gathering to meals, and barely organizing anything. At least through Halloween. He doesn’t plan to come home before winter break.

Meanwhile the message I want to send when I hug him goodbye can’t be said by carefully folding his top sheet.

Be open.

Care for others.

Find others that might keep an eye out for you, too.

Eat a salad. Better yet, eat a cooked vegetable here and there.

Put your phone away as often as possible.

Find other people who put their phones away as often as possible.

Ask questions.

Laugh your ass off.

At no other time will George have a more fertile place to be unsure, unfettered and with only the expectation that he engage.

Sing. Run. (George loves to do both.) Find people to sing and to run with.

Shoot your mom a text every few days.

In fact, send me a text after you make your bed that first night.

… Or a selfie. A selfie of you, tucking in your very own self.

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