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Child Caring

Single dad already missing his college-bound daughter

Hi Barbara,

I am a single father of two girls, one is 18 and my younger is 14. I have been raising them on my own since they were 8 and 4. For a long time, it has been just us three.

My oldest daughter will leave for Freshman year of college in September and as we get closer to September, I am having a hard time dealing with it. I just feel incredibly sad like the joy and good times we all had as they grew up are over. Maybe it's just me being overly sentimental, I don't know. Even her younger sister is feeling it, though, she said to me in private a few days ago, "Dad, I'm sad that Marisa's leaving. It will be strange here without her." I told her that I was sad too and yes, it will be different. But she is only a 2- hour drive away, so it won't be that bad.

My question: Is it normal to have these feelings when older kids leave for College?

Also, if this is something a lot of people feel? Can you recommend any books or articles in helping to deal with it?

From: Anthony, Andover, MA


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Dear Anthony,

Yes, yes! This is normal and healthy and, no, you are not being sentimental and, what's more, your answer to your younger daughter was right on. You acknowledged the truth of the situation, didn't pooh-pooh her feelings and didn't downplay your own. Life will be different. Admitting that is a good first step. Here's the second: Acknowledging that there will be a new normal, for all three of you.

Here's the tricky part: While it's OK to acknowledge this, you don't want to wallow in it. Meaning: you don't want your freshman to think you will fall apart with her gone, you don't want her to feel guilty for growing up. And you don't want your younger daughter to feel she is responsible for your happiness. Let them both know the truth of that. And if it isn't true -- if you really feel like you don't know how you are going to manage -- find someone to talk to about this, professional or otherwise. The burden of setting the tone for the separation is on you and, yes, not having a partner makes it a big burden. Don't turn your younger daughter into that partner and don't let do that to herself. There may be times when she might stay home rather than go off with her friends and leave you alone. It will be your job to assure that you will be OK. Maybe this is the time in your life to take up a new hobby, activity or class.

Other suggestions:

Plan a separation party. The three of you can plan this together as a way to look back and forward at the same time. Make your favorite foods, maybe their favorite childhood foods. Each of you plan to share three (or five or 10, whatever) favorite stories/photos/memories, maybe make up some categories (funny, bad, sad, happy, stupid memories). This is where you can each wallow and maybe even cry together. But then also find a way to focus on the the near future. Your girls will take their cues from you. Here's what I'm looking forward to: x, y and z. Keep it funny and real. This is a celebration of the three of you, where you've been and where you're going. long time ago, a researcher told me that the separation process for teenagers without siblings is hardest and messiest for both parents and child because those parent-relationships tend to be unusually tight.

Make concrete plans with your younger daughter for that first week so there will be things for you both to look forward to. Be careful not to put pressure on her so that if something fun comes up in her life, she can bail. Also talk about how you can share your feelings once her sister is gone. Just as it isn't healthy to wallow in any sadness you feel, it also isn't healthy to not acknowledge it. Make sure she knows that if she feels lonesome for her sister, it's OK to say so. Make yourself a role model for how to do this by acknowledging the feeling -- "I'm really missing Sally tonight, this is her favorite meal." -- and then showing you can move on: "'Homeland' is on tonight!"

When you talk to your freshman, it's OK to say you're thinking of her, but try to avoid the literal words, "I miss you." That tends to induce guilt.

Be clear that the two sisters still can have a relationship that does not involve you. Your youngest shouldn't feel guilty that her sister called her, rather than you, and vice versa. Don't ask her all the time, "Have you heard from..." It's not a competition. (I know parents who make it into one!)

BTW, I've been down this road and it was not as hard as I expected. My husband and I created new routines and patterns within a few days. You and your daughter will, too. I look forward to hearing what readers suggest.

For reading, try this Washington Post article; this one that I've written; or the "college years" section in Laurence Steinberg's book, "You and Your Adolescent, the essential guide for ages 10 to 25 (revised edition)."