Indian parents get freshman blues as they drop off children at college

Uma Narayanan was always an independent child. So when the South Brunswick High School graduate decided to embark on a study abroad program in her first semester as a freshman, her parents weren’t too surprised. They knew she’d always leave home for college and they encouraged her decision to go aboard.

The 18-year-old, who is currently at McGill University in Montreal Canada, will be back in January to pursue her business degree at Northeastern University in Boston. “I always knew that Uma will not be staying home after high school, so I prepared myself,” her mother Sunita Narayanan told India Abroad. Although it was never discussed before her junior year, Sunita Narayanan says she’s glad her elder daughter chose to go away. “Being away from home will give her the independence to lead her life the way she chooses, make decisions along the way, make mistakes and learn from them,” she said.

Over the past few weeks, parents like Sunita Narayanan have made trips to campuses near and far, settling their children in their dorms, and bidding them goodbye with a heavy heart. Whether the child is a half-hour away from home or a few hundred miles, parents go through a contradiction of feelings. Although everything that the child might need is taken care of – shopping, loading of meal plan cards and setting up of bank accounts – there is that feeling of anxiety and confusion a parents feels when it’s time to say goodbye. But at the same time it is important that parents do not project their angst, many say. The kids have enough on their minds with new roommates and surroundings, and things will eventually fall in place, they believe.

This is the mantra that Ashok Reddy followed as the Hyderabad father dropped off his son at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Although both his boys were born in the U.S., the Reddys eventually moved to India, where the boys finished their schooling. Sending the kids to study in the U.S. was a logical, but a tough decision, Ashok Reddy told India Abroad. Although they have a lot of family in New Jersey and he knows that his son will be taken care of, he said that it is the distance between them that is mentally exhausting. “While our job as parents is to leave our kids with both the right size sheets and a sense that they are well equipped for this next, independent stage of life, one can’t help but worry about their safety and whether they will take the right decisions.”

It is this worry that grips Deepa Sahani Sood’s mind too. It’s been a little over a week since her only child left for school. Although he’s half hour away from home, attending George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, she says the emotions are the same when a child moves out of home. The few weeks leading up to his move were busy - shopping, ticking off lists and packing. Sahani Sood said she tried to spend more time with her son Sahil. “Boys don’t show their emotions, so it was important for me to be with him, in case he wanted to talk, open up.” The night before he left, her son surprised her, she said: he came to her room, sat beside her and said he wanted to spend time with her. “It melted my heart,” she said.

So what do parents like Narayanan, Reddy and Sahani Sood fall back on? The faith and trust they have in their child of course, they say. “We are desi parents, we have different values, and we have to trust those and our faith in God,” Sahani Sood said. “And there is a basic belief that our child is wonderful.” Of course there’s the fear of the unknown, and all the horrendous stories we read and hear about the campus. Narayanan has a solution to that: staying in touch. “Maintaining the dialogue with your child is very important,” she says. “But at the same time it is equally important to respect their space, their privacy,” she noted. “It is a thin line, but each one has to find that balance.”

While most parents can anticipate their child’s reaction when being dropped off at the campus, there are some like Sangeetha Sandeep who was thrown a curve ball by her younger daughter. When the San Ramon, California mom dropped her daughter Sunaina Sandeep at Arizona State University, she was surprised when her daughter got upset when it was time to bid farewell. “Agreed she’s the baby of the family, but she’s not a very emotional child, so her reaction was quite unexpected,” she said. She is regularly in touch with her daughter and she seems to be settling down well, she said, sounding relieved. Their older daughter is now home after graduating from Purdue University, so “there’s someone home.” “We are not empty nesters yet,” she said.

Narayanan seems to agree with Sandeep. Having another child at home helps with the transition, she feels

Then what about the empty nesters? Ask Shikha Gulati of Dallas, Texas, who recently dropped both her kids – a freshman and a senior – at college. Although both the kids are close to home, Gulati says not having them stay at home “is a mixed feeling.” She now has the independence of not being bound by their schedule, but at the same time “there is a void.”

For Sahani Sood and many parents like her, having work and a busy lifestyle that helps. “Work keeps me busy, and that’s why I don’t find myself thinking about my son all the time.” There’s no doubt that she misses him, but she always has the option of just driving down to go see him. That’s an option Sandeep doesn’t have. “I always envy parents who can just drive and go meet their kids.” But Narayanan feels that however close or far the child chooses to go, once they are out, they are gone. “How often would you go to meet them if your child was half hour away?” she asks. “Life gets in the way and letting go is the most benevolent thing one can do.” Of course it’s not easy, but there’s always a first time.

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