Sending our Kids to College: Part 3 of a 3-Part Series

 By Lisa Sugarman

For the last three weeks, I’ve been writing, firsthand, about the emotional path we travel as parents when we send our first child off to college. I’ve been chronicling how every part of the process feels—the highs, the lows, and everything in between. This is the third and final column in the series. I guess you can call it the Afterword.


Words are amazing little tools. Most of the time, they enable us to communicate our innermost thoughts and feelings with almost pinpoint accuracy. Unfortunately, there are also times, like now, when the right words elude us. When we can’t find a way to articulate how we feel, no matter how many thesauruses we use. For me, this is one of those times.b62ebb98ad81831dcefe0a7bbd79e132_370x290

So in the interest of trying to be as authentic as I can here and give you a true peephole into my heart, the rest of my column are the most emotional highlights from The Drop Off. It’s the best way I can express how it all felt.

5:30am on Move-In Day…

For God’s sake, why, of all things, did this month’s birth control packet have to become my countdown calendar to when Riley goes to college? The last pill in the damn cycle falls on the exact day we take her to school. So this is how I’ve been counting down the days all month. I mean, really?! It’s almost too ironic.

I’m lucky I have all this packing and unpacking to focus on, because without anything to distract my thoughts right now, I’d be screwed.

Breathe. Just breathe.

Dave: “If I slashed all four tires, do you think she’d suspect anything?”

Me: “A little too conspicuous, honey. Good effort, tho.”

Oh God, she’s about to say goodbye to the dog. This is not going to go well.

Me: “I can’t look at her, Dave. If I look at her or open my mouth, I’m gonna lose it.”

Dave: “I know. Why do you think I keep avoiding her?”

Libby: “Mom, are you ok?”

Me: (No response.)

Libby: “You’re ok, mom. It’s gonna be ok. You still have me for another three years.”

Me: “I know, honey. (Sniff)

Dave: “Lis, you ok?”

Me: (No response. Just tears.)

Dave: “I’m dreading going home.”

Me: “I know. I don’t want to see that she’s not there.”

Dave: “I hate this.”

Me: “I know. It’s brutal. It’s like someone hit me in the stomach with a telephone pole.”

Me: “Table for four, please.”8534766_1

Dave: “Uh, hon, we only need a table for three.”

Me: (Tears.)

Dave: “We’re gonna be ok.”

Me: “I know. But I don’t like what’s between here and ok. All I want is her wet towel back on the bathroom floor. I just want to trip over her lying on the kitchen floor after cross country practice, spooning the dog. I want to bitch at her for always having her door locked. I want to wait up until she gets home.

I miss her smelling like popcorn every weekend when she comes home from her shift at the video store. I miss cleaning up the wigs worth of hair that covers the bathroom floor every morning. I miss our Tuesday night ritual of watching Pretty Little Liars, cuddled up under the covers in my bed. I miss cooking and shopping and doing laundry for four. I miss knowing who she’s with. I miss knowing what she’s doing.

I want to know that she’s safe. I want to hug her whenever I feel like it. I don’t want to keep avoiding her empty room.

I also want her to be happy. I want her to get on with her life so she can come back to me and gush about where she’s been and what she’s done and who she’s met. I want her to embrace her future. I want her to do what the dean of her university said at her matriculation ceremony—I want her to explore and embrace and play every single key on the piano while she has the chance.”

So while I’d love to lie to you and say that letting her go was relatively painless, like ripping off a Band-Aid really fast, I can’t. Because it wasn’t. Escorting my daughter out the door and onto the rest of her life was the single most difficult thing I’ve done yet as a parent. But at the very same time, it was also the most beautiful. It was bittersweet and just barely doable. Barely.

As for advice, though, I don’t have any. Sorry. It is what it is and we all have to ride the wave with the goal of just staying on the board until we hit dry land again.Banana-Camp-Surf-Girls-79

But we do, eventually, hit solid ground. I’m sure of it. And when we do, we get to turn around and watch them ride their own beautiful wave into shore. And I’m looking forward to that. Very forward.

In the meantime, enjoy the ride, babe. I’ll be waiting with open arms.

Lisa Sugarman lives just north of Boston, Massachusetts. Read and discuss all her columns at She is also the author of LIFE: It Is What It Is available on and at select Whole Foods Market stores.


Sending our Kids to College: Part 1 of a 3-Part Series

By Lisa Sugarman

For the next three weeks, while I’m in the thick of helping my oldest daughter pack for college, my column will have a different format. Beginning today, I’ll be writing a three-part series on the packing up, the dropping off, and the adjusting to your first child going to college. I’ll be chronicling how every part of the process feels from inside the heart and the mind of The Mom—the good, the bad, and the hysterical. Consider it like a first-person-shooter video game, where you’re looking right through the crosshairs with me and feeling the recoil rip through your shoulder every time I fire a shot. But just so we’re clear, this series is way more for me than it is for you—it’s my way of processing how much life is about to change. So grab your Kleenex, cause I’ve got mine. We’re gonna need ‘em. Here we go.

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The fact that Riley is going to college next week comes as no great surprise to me—I’ve been anticipating and preparing for it for a really, really long time. Pretty much since the day she was born.

Together with Dave, of course, I helped her research schools, went on all the campus tours, bought all the overpriced hoodies from all the schools we might be interested in, filled out all the applications, proofread her essay, waited by the mailbox, ran screaming around the house when the first acceptance letter came, cried when she got in to her dream school, mailed the deposit, threw up, went to Accepted Student’s Day, met her roommate, saw her fall semester course schedule, and did a drive-by of her dorm.

What I haven’t been able to anticipate, though, is the exact time when the uncontrollable swell of emotion that’s been coursing around inside me, just under the surface, will show itself. And that’s the thing I’m most afraid of, to be honest.

The rational, mature, grounded part of my brain has really been pretty good with everything up to now. I mean, in most cases, kids grow up, they graduate from high school, they go on to college, they find jobs and build careers, and then they start families of their own. Life comes full circle, exactly like it did in The Lion King. So theoretically, I’m totally fine with the whole cycle of life. Theoretically.

My unexpected downfall came very suddenly, a few days ago, and it started with an empty red shopping cart.targethandrail

We were at Target, of course, with Riley’s What Incoming Freshman Need to Bring list. It was long, but not overwhelming and she was so excited to rebrand herself as a college freshman, that her energy was contagious. And because of how enthusiastic she is to go off to school, the real magnitude of what we were doing hadn’t really clicked for me.

I was actually fine at first, almost whimsically grabbing cases of bottled water and laundry pods and extra-long sheet sets. She asked for my opinion on sizes and colors and brands and could already visualize the way her room was going to look—just like I did when I took the same shopping trip with my mom decades ago.

Then, without even realizing where we had wandered in the store, I looked up to find myself staring directly down the center aisle of the Toy Department. And that’s when the wheels started coming off the bus for me.

I just stood there, my eyes drifting from the Polly Pocket shopping mall to the Legos to the Elmo dolls, and then I lost it. My throat tightened up, my eyes started squirting out tears, and all I could see was four-year-old Riley wearing a Disney princess dress, lobbying for me to buy her a new stuffed dog.tickle-elmo

Lucky for me, the moment was brief—a lot like the daily storm cells that blow into, and out of, the Florida coast. So quick that I’m not sure Riley even noticed. And I’m glad for that. Because even though she knows her mother well enough to anticipate a full and total breakdown when I turn and walk away from her on drop-off day, I didn’t want all of our time getting ready to be eclipsed by snotty wads of Kleenex. There’ll be plenty of that to come, I’m sure.

That was my first authentic oh-my-God-my-daughter-is-going-to-college episode. And as momentarily gut-wrenching as it was, I survived. We all survive.

This experience of raising our kids, laboring over them, loving them, guiding and protecting them, and then letting them loose in the world is a super-weird sensation. We all know it’s time; we all know they’re ready; but we just don’t want to let go when the time finally comes. And it hits us all at different times and in very different ways.

Deepak Chopra says all great changes are preceded by chaos. So I’m gonna go with that for now. As for next week, though, when we’re loading up the car, all bets are off. Until next week…

Lisa Sugarman lives just north of Boston, Massachusetts. Read and discuss all her columns at She is also the author of LIFE: It Is What It Is available on and at select Whole Foods Market stores.

Big moments are everywhere you turn

imagesWSDOTDLDBy Lisa Sugarman

Milestones. That’s an interesting word, isn’t it? Especially when you’re a parent.

I mean, it can apply to so many different things. Like, maybe it’s your baby’s first steps or words or solid foods. Or it could be your daughter’s first date or her first ATM card or your toddler finally being able to blow the gunk out of his nose on his own. (That’s a big one.) There are tons of scenarios. Way too many to list off here.

And what I find funny—well, maybe more interesting than funny—is that every one of these landmarks produces a very specific kind of reaction from us. And those reactions can range from absolute joy all the way to full-on-sweaty-palms panic. And everything in between.

Webster’s defines milestones as a very important event or advance. But as far as I’m concerned, at this particular moment in my life, I define it with one simple word. College.

It’s almost impossible to wade through all the sensations attached to watching your first kid click the Submit button on her college applications. It’s weird, because in that tiny moment, while her finger is hovering above the Enter button, all the other milestones you’ve ever gone through as a parent just rush your brain all at once, sort of like a massive blitz on the QB. And in just that split second, while her finger is coming down on the key, your mind goes back to when they were little and still doing a commando crawl around the living room. It flashes to them eating Gerber oatmeal and bananas and taking their first steps and pooping on your duvet for the first time. Good times. Gooooood times.

And while every milestone is significant, this one in particular’s got real teeth, as far as milestones go. It clamps its spikey canines down right around your heart and just bites straight through all the soft tissue in an explosion of emotions. In fact, so much stuff is simultaneously released from the heart at that moment that you almost expect it to stop beating. Yet somehow, it keeps going.

One thing I didn’t expect, though, when Riley finally pressed the button and sent all of her applications up into the cloud, was the overwhelming sense of anticlimacticness. I guess on some level I always imagined that a milestone this big would automatically come with a full fireworks display shooting up from her laptop and at least a high-school-level marching band parading through the kitchen playing Celebration. But it didn’t happen. There were just crickets. Lots of crickets.

I also expected that she’d somehow feel the significance of the milestone the same way I was. You know, in a way that compelled her to want to sit on my lap and burry her head in my neck and want to be snuggled and kissed on the forehead. (I have a slightly overzealous imagination.) Needless to say, I practically had to manhandle her to get a quick kiss before she left for work. I figured out later that what she was actually relishing in was the feeling of finally being free of the ball and chain that is The Common Application.

That’s when I had to remind myself that we all transition through these big moments in our life very differently depending on which side of the viewfinder we’re on. Because as much as I wish that we were all in sync with the way we perceive and feel these big milestones, we’re just not.

When we’re kids, we don’t pay too much attention to the big moments, or, for that matter, anything beyond Friday Night Football and not running out of concealer. As adults, though, we’re hyper-aware of every single second of time with our kids, especially these big life-defining moments. And I suppose that’s just the way it’s always going to be. And that’s because ignorance is bliss, right? I’m sure if I asked my mom what it was like when I dropped my college applications in the mail, she’d probably say that I bolted out of the house to hang out with my friends while she cried herself into a puffy mess on the couch.

So while, in the great scheme of milestones, I feel like the college process is definitely a biggie, I know that it’s just one more in an ongoing, never-ending story of Big Moments that we all cycle through. And the truth is, as much as I feel like this one deserved a healthy pause and some legitimate fanfare, I’m sure that the moment we open the first tuition bill will involve something even more significant. Something like smelling salts seems about right.

Lisa Sugarman lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Read and discuss all her columns at She is also the author of LIFE: It Is What It Is available on

Seventeen again: What if we could go back and do it all again?

rodney-back-to-schoolBy Lisa Sugarman

So here I am, in the car, on my way home from our first college tour. The University of Vermont. And to be honest, I’m not exactly sure if the motion sickness I’m feeling right now is because I’m typing while Dave’s driving or because we’re on our way home from our first college tour. Too tough to call.

We’ve still got a couple of years left to let the reality of college ferment before it’s palatable, but it was definitely a big moment.

Actually, I’m really pretty okay with the idea right now, mainly because Riley is so okay with it. Thank God for that whole Cycle-of-Life thing. I’m grateful for that little hidden layer of protection that’s woven into all of us that buffers us just enough from the sadness of letting our kids go. Sort of like the fire retardant suits that firefighters wear that allows them to tolerate the heat of a barn burner without actually getting burned. They still feel the heat but without too much injury. Right now, to me, college is like that.

Either way, the whole trip got me thinking. Reminiscing, really. Remembering back to the perspective I had when I was seventeen and thinking about the perspective I have now. And lemme tell you, looking back now at where I came from then, I realize just how radically different those perspectives are just by virtue of nothing more than age and wisdom.

Think about it, even if you were a pretty grounded college freshman, which, knowing you, I’m sure you were, it wasn’t like you never screwed up. It’s inevitable. Happens to the best of us. You skipped class. You went to keggers. You went to your Introduction to Theory of Literature lecture with dark Wayfarers on and a really pounding headache and a queasy stomach. You did. We both know you did.

So haven’t you ever wished you could go back and do it again? Knowing what you know now. Can you just imagine? Looking back, I think I really could’ve had a good shot at a Mensa membership if I retained even half of what I was exposed to when I was in college. And I actually tried in school. Like really tried and really put myself out there. But even in spite of that, looking back as an adult and as a mom, I know I could’ve put myself out there even more than I did. I just know there’s plenty I let fall through the cracks just because, at 17, what the hell did I know? Right?

And now that the whole college process is dangling a few inches out in front of me again, like Swifty the Wonderland rabbit, I’m kind of wishing there was a way I could go back again. But this time it would be as the me now, not the me then. And wouldn’t that be something? Because this time I’d be totally present in the moment instead of just flitting from party to party. Uh, er, I mean moment to moment. (Sorry, mom.) This time I’d suck it dry. I’d get everything I could out of it. And, I’m pretty confident, without even so much as a keg stand.

Because what most of us inherently lacked the first time around, even in spite of how ready for college we were, was appreciation. And it’s only with age that we acquire wisdom and it’s only with wisdom do we learn appreciation. And these qualities are learned, believe me. They don’t come standard. They take decades of life experience to develop before they’re fully refined. And even then we’re not perfect. That’s why I think adults should automatically get a mid-life-do-over period that’s automatically built into our late adulthood. Because let’s be honest, there probably isn’t one of us who wouldn’t want to pack our bags and do it all over again knowing what we know now. We could kill it if we went back and used all the life experience we’ve learned up to now.

And of course since this is my fictitious and totally impossible little brainchild, I think the whole thing should be government subsidized, maybe worked into Social Security somehow. I’ll need more time to flesh out the higher-level details. So for now, let’s just call it like a Mature-Adult Higher Education Program that would allow people to take advantage of all the wisdom & perspective they’ve acquired in their adult life and use it to go back and get more out of college than they did the first time. Then, just imagine how productive we’d be when we returned to our lives to finish out our careers?

Maybe the program is a year, maybe two. I picture the curriculum as a condensed version of the four-year programs most of us took as undergrads. The only difference being they could accelerate it because most of us wouldn’t be partying or sleeping in or missing classes. And since the majority of us have pretty decent executive functioning by now, we should be able to stay focused and actually retain what we’re learning in that shorter time frame. Hell, maybe we could even get “Life Credits” and earn ourselves another degree. It could be like a B.A. in Life.

And since we’d be doing this at a point in our lives when our kids are either in college or just out of school, we’d be totally unencumbered by distractions. Because remember, part of My Plan is that the government pays our tuition AND our employers give us an automatic sabbatical from our jobs (fully paid, of course).

I don’t know where all this is going. I just know that this is the kind of thing my mind thinks about on 500-mile road trips. Sorry.

Let’s just say this, applications for the fall of 2014 are now being accepted. I figure it shouldn’t take more than a year to sell the US Department of Education on the idea. You think? So get your Trapper Keepers out, because if I get my way, we may all get the chance to go back.

Lisa Sugarman lives in Marblehead. Read and discuss all her columns at OR follow her blog at