(How This Mom Feels) Sending My Son to College, in Spite of … Everything.

Here we are. The day we’ve been anticipating for over a year (concerned).

I’m not inexperienced when it comes to dropping off a child at college (cocky). When I took my first-born son to school two years ago, I was sentimental but mostly just excited for him (living vicariously)! I didn’t cry (staid). I knew I’d miss him but I was comfortable dropping him off (prepared). This time feels…different (cautious).

This time last year, my husband and I were tiptoeing around the elephant in the living room that was our son and his unwritten college applications (restless). Matthew has always done things his way, on his own terms, and we knew applying to college would be no exception (uneasy). He’d spent hours upon hours preparing for the SAT over the summer, even though all of us think those tests are bullshit and not at all predictive of success in college or life (peeved). It’s one of those horrific things you find yourself participating in even though you feel like a hypocrite for even paying the fee (repulsed). You want to buck the system and say “fuck it,” but you’re too scared that maybe it’s actually important and you’ll hate yourself for blowing it off (hamstrung). It’s gaslighting at its finest, as evidenced by the fact that fewer and fewer schools are requiring the ACT or SAT anymore (exhausted).

I remember an exquisitely beautiful moment when he’d been taking a practice test in his room and the swearing and pencil-breaking stopped (surprised). Matthew came into the kitchen:

Him: Test-prep is going much better now.

Me: Why is that?

Him: Because now, whenever I get a question wrong, I talk to myself in a compassionate voice and tell myself it’s ok. That I’m ok. It helps me refocus and keep going.

At that point, I knew it didn’t matter what he got on the damned test because I knew my boy knew his own worth in himself and how to practice self-compassion (touched). I knew these skills would make him more successful and fulfilled in life than anything else ever could (proud). He took the test a second time and got the same score he did before he spent months preparing (exasperated). He was deflated (despairing). But only for a few hours (relieved). Then we all moved on (resigned).

He finished his applications well in advance of the due dates (energized). He spent the rest of the fall and winter struggling with major Senioritis (disoriented). In the weeks leading up to the notification date for UNC-Chapel Hill, his first choice, he began having all sorts of inexplicable stomach pains, among other symptoms I suspected were rooted in anxiety given their inconsistency (perplexed). But he was actually quite ill and losing weight, even around the holidays (anxious). I wanted time to pass quickly so he could find out his plans for the future and his symptoms would go away (troubled).

The day in January when he heard from Carolina that he had not gotten in Early Decision, we were all crushed (dejected). He was despondent (despondent). He’d been accepted at other schools but wasn’t passionate about them (disheartened). On the bright side, after reading the letter from UNC more closely, we learned that he’d not been outright rejected but was eligible to apply for UNC Global Launch, a new program they hadn’t offered in the past (intrigued). He could apply to spend the fall semester abroad in Ireland at an affiliate university in Maynooth and then start at Chapel Hill in January 2021 (encouraged). He was skeptical at first, reluctant to put in the effort and risk disappointment, but as the deadline for the application approached, he became even more driven and focused than he’d been applying to college (rejuvenated). He wrote essays that spoke in a more compelling voice (inspired). A fire in his belly emerged that had previously been missing (impassioned). After completing the application in February:

Me: Why don’t you go up to campus and ask them if they got your application?

Him: Why? I could just email or call them.

Me: Because we live five minutes away from campus and people love to see an actual face.

Him: But that’s not fair because I live here and the other applicants don’t. They can’t just go up there.

Me: Exactly.

He promptly drove to the Admissions Office (empowered). The young people at the front desk had never heard of the Global Launch program (confused). They went to the back and summoned an admissions officer (impressed). They chatted for a bit before she said: “Yep. You’re all set. We’ve got everything we need.”

A few minutes after he got home:

Him: (shouting from the second floor): Mom! My UNC application status has been updated! What should I do?

Me (running up the stairs): Well, first of all you need to step back from the stairs.

Him: Why? Because you think I’ll fall if I don’t get in?

Me: You could fall whether you get in or not. Just step away from the stairs.

We went into my bedroom (addled). I looked over his shoulder at his phone and tried to read the fine print as he opened the link from Carolina: “We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted…”

Both of us went completely berserk (elated). Jumping up and down, hugging, swearing, freaking out (ecstatic, concerned about wetting my pants). Our dog was leaping too, giddily participating in the celebration (euphoric).

Him: Do you think she admitted me to the program, right then and there, just because she met me in person?

Me (out of breath): We’ll never know. But I’m betting you were already deemed qualified and once she saw the kind of guy you are in real life, she thought, “I know this is a great guy and I don’t want him to have to wait to hear this great news so I’m going to notify him right this second.”

Him: I still can’t believe it all happened so fast!

Over the following weeks, Matthew’s stomach pains magically disappeared (contented). We went to the Student Store and bought Tarheel gear (secure). He started having dreams about living in Ireland, the friends he’d make, and returning home with a cool accent (nostalgic).

In mid-March, Matthew and his younger sister were headed out the door to school:

Me: Just so you hear this from me and not all of your friends, so you know what’s true or not true, Coronavirus is coming. We’ll all get it but we’ll be fine. We’ll have to stay at home for two weeks but we’ll watch tons of Netflix, eat our favorite foods, play games, and hang out together and then it’ll be over and we’ll move on.

Kids (laughing): Okay sure, Mom. Crazy much? Thanks for the heads up.

The following week, the world shut down (shocked). For Matthew this meant: no Senior prom (sad); no spring break (sad); no graduation parties (sad), although C.E. Jordan High School did a phenomenal job making the drive-by graduation ceremony super special (moved); no saying goodbye to those casual acquaintances you only see in the hallways (sad); no rehashing of inside jokes (sad); no yearbook signings (sad); no summer vacation with cousins (sad); and no summer job as a camp counselor (sad).

In April, we learned that the Ireland program had been cancelled, but Matthew had been accepted to UNC for the fall (excited).

In May, he had to take his AP Stats exam online, following an asinine format of answering 2 questions in 45 minutes, then uploading a photo of the handwritten answers (harried). The day of the exam, I was on the phone when I heard guttural screaming from upstairs:

Me: What’s wrong??

Him (shouting): I can’t fucking submit my answers!! The photo won’t fucking upload!! I have 3 minutes to submit my answer and go onto the next question and the fucking photo won’t upload!!!!

Me (completely incompetent): Okay. Hang on. We can fix this.

Time seemed to stop, but somehow still ran out (powerless). The next question was no longer available (panicked). My son, who isn’t belligerent in the least, got up and punched a huge hole in his bedroom door (horrified). Who could blame him? If you’d spent a year trying to learn statistics so you could get college credit for your effort, spent two months at home with no in-person learning, prepared for the test, felt great about your answer, then the test wouldn’t let you submit your response, and there’s no one to call, what would you do? (disgusted)

College Board didn’t accept his answers, but told him to take the test again two weeks later (fuming). In June, he retook it in a rental house at the beach where we went to escape quarantine for a few days (uneasy). Two weeks later:

College Board: We can’t accept your answers because of a glitch. We invite you to take the exam again in two weeks.

Our entire family: FUCK IT!

When July came around, we learned that the Ireland experience was rescheduled to January 2021 (tentative). The rest of the summer has been a blur (drained). The time with Matthew has been an unexpected gift, filled with spontaneous conversations and heartfelt reveries, more special than I could’ve ever imagined (enchanted).

I know there’s a pandemic going on (scared). I know UNC-CH is getting criticized for re-opening (glum). I understand why professors don’t want to teach (empathetic). I understand why parents don’t want to pay for tuition and room/board when so many classes are going to be virtual (exasperated). I feel with the elderly neighbor who ranted to me and Matthew as we walked our dog last night, venting about all the “crazy college kids” on the local news, leaving a house party in Chapel Hill, not wearing masks. I know she’s worried for her own health and others (grieving).

I wanted so badly for Matthew to have the senior year and college freshman year that his older brother had (remorseful). I couldn’t control any of these events and I knew it (empty).

Last week, Matthew was going camping with two friends in the mountains (apprehensive). I was foreboding joy, thinking of tragedies occurring right before something beautiful is supposed to happen (tense). I got a call from Matthew but it wasn’t him on the other line:

Male voice: Hi there. This is Joe. I’m calling you from Matthew’s phone that I found here at Hole 7 on the disc golf course. It has his credit cards and driver’s license tucked into the case. I thought maybe you’d know how to get hold of him.

Me: Ummm…how did you get my number? How were you able to call me?

Joe: I used Siri to Call Mom.

Me: Joe. I can’t thank you enough for your honesty and cleverness. You’re one great guy! Can you believe Matthew is starting college next week and his lifelines are there with you? How’s this guy going to survive? How am I going to survive?!

Joe (laughing): I’m sure he’s got it figured out.

I was able to reach Matthew through his friend’s phone and proceeded to chew him out (upset). After we hung up the phone, this text conversation happened:

Him: I’m 18 now. When I mess up, it’s my ass. I don’t think you understand that messing up is stressful for ME. You adding on stress simply doesn’t help. I love you, Mom. You can trust me to always do my best, make mistakes, learn from them, become better.

Me: That’s beautiful, honey. I hear you and I respect you. I love you.

So, I took my boy to college last night, at his assigned move in time of 6:30 pm, despite all the naysayers and my own discomfort. I took him because he deserves his hard-earned independence, new friendships and experiences. He’s resilient. He knows himself. He can set boundaries. He’s dependable and loyal, even if he operates on different timelines than I do. He owns his mistakes and apologizes. He takes responsibility for himself and his actions. He doesn’t gossip. He’s trustworthy and honest. He has integrity and embodies his values, even if they’re not identical to mine. He’s nonjudgmental and always gives people the benefit of the doubt. Most importantly, he’s good to himself and knows how to bounce back. He has more emotional intelligence than most adults. I have no doubt that he will be successful in life.

He also received notice yesterday that, by some unknown and benevolent force of nature, he got a 5 on his AP Stats test and earned college credit.

Go Heels!!!



Tracey is a physician and a Certified Daring Way™ Facilitator trained in the curriculum of Brené Brown for helping professionals. She lives in Chapel Hill, NC.

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Tracey O'Connell, MD

Tracey is a physician and a Certified Daring Way™ Facilitator trained in the curriculum of Brené Brown for helping professionals. She lives in Chapel Hill, NC.