Diary of a College Move-In

As it always is at this time of year, my Facebook feed is jammed with first day of school photos and “I can’t believe he/she’s in second/third/fourth grade!!!” posts. But this year has an added twist. I’ve also been seeing more college move-in posts from friends…which makes sense given the fact that I just finished moving Girl 1 into college myself.

However, I have a bone to pick with all of you fellow “move-in” parents.

Given that my kid’s school doesn’t start until after Labor Day, most of you blazed the trail for me over the last two or three weeks. As a result, I used your photos as a guidebook to anticipate my own experience. But you posted a series of happy, smiling faces. You showed neatly organized dorm rooms with pretty tapestries and office supplies carefully arranged on desks. You showed family photos outside of college buildings and no one was crying, annoyed, or sweating.

Perhaps your child is going to school at Disney World. Or on another planet. If not, you’re all liars. Every last one of you. And I mean that in the nicest way possible, of course.

But really, you’ve led me seriously astray with your happy family photos and “So proud of this child! Spread your wings and fly!” captions. Therefore, I feel it is my responsibility, nay my moral obligation as a citizen of the planet, to provide a detailed description of what it is like moving a child to college for the first time.

And so, without further ado, I offer you “Diary of a College Move-In.”

SPOILER ALERT: It’s not pretty. It basically involves taking the child pictured below (because this is the only way I think of her in my head) to a strange place and setting her free:

Photo 1

Night Before Departure:

8:47 pm
Girl 1 is leaving home, more or less for good, in less than 12 hours. She has been planning this for 17 years – and quite vocally for the last four. I would like for someone, anyone, to please explain to me why it looks like nothing is packed. Oh, wait. I take that back. She has packed 14 pairs of shoes and what looks to be an entire suitcase of tank tops and shorts. She’s going to college in Chicago. I feel I should mention that sweaters and jackets would also be helpful.

8:49 pm
Apparently, I know nothing and she’s “got this.” It would appear there is “not enough room” for bulky coats and such nonsense. There is, however, adequate space for photos, five jars of glitter, a bag of stickers and books with titles like “I Could Pee On This: and Other Poems by Cats.” (Which, to be fair, I did give her for Christmas a couple of years ago.)

10:18 pm
Am beginning to panic. We have a 12-hour drive ahead of us and I need sleep. The goal is to have the car packed tonight being as that the alarm goes off at 5 am and we pull out of the driveway at 6 am. At the moment, the three suitcases of household goods and the giant box with bed linens, etc., that I packed are in the back of the car. It is already beginning to look as if there will not be room for actual people.

12:23 am
Perhaps it is not too late to convince her to take a gap year?

3:09 am
Finally going to bed. At last check, she was “not sleeping, just resting for a minute” in a pile of bedding, clothes, and bathing suits in the middle of her room. Bathing suits? Is there a swim scholarship I don’t know about? But on the bright side, suitcases are mostly packed. We might actually pull this off.

Move-out Day:

8:32 am
We did it! We hit our “6 am pulling out of the driveway” goal! The fact that it didn’t happen until 8:30 am is beside the point. We are here to celebrate the victories, which, in this case, includes fitting everything in the car including, primarily, the guitar and, secondarily, her sisters.

As a side note, I told the 11-year old to “pack light.” She has brought clothes and (I hope) a toothbrush wrapped in a sweatshirt with the arms tied together much like a 1930’s hobo. My driveway looks like a scene from The Grapes of Wrath.

The car is packed. The child is tired. It’s go time. (Please note the red hobo-like sweatshirt bundle provided by Girl 3.)

11:27 am
Am proposing a new motto for West Virginia. While “Wild and Wonderful” is catchy and no doubt accurate, I feel that “Fill Up Your Gas Tank Before You Come” would be more helpful. Have just coasted into what I believe is the only gas station in the state. I am fairly certain that driving the last five miles with the gauge reading “0 miles remaining” was only possible thanks to the fact that we were going downhill most of the way.

3:56 pm
West Virginia is long forgotten. Am now only concerned with Ohio, which does not end. Already need more gas. Wonder if Girl 1 would be willing to call it now and just go to Ohio State instead?

3:57 pm
Turns out, no.

5:21 pm
Good news: have made it as far as Indianapolis. Bad news: I hate everyone and everything.

7:49 pm
Chicago at last!! Also, we gained an hour, so it’s really only 6:49 pm. That feels like a win.

Arriving in Chicago
These were the first smiles since the gas station in West Virginia. They were mostly sincere.

10:07 pm
Have checked in at the hotel. Have fed the people. Will attempt sleep. Hope it is not weird that I am making Girl 1 sleep next to me. Hope even more that she does not mind waking up in a puddle of my tears.

Move-in Day:

8:44 am
There is a reason that times of major transition are stressful. It is so you won’t mind what comes next. In this particular case, the three teenagers fighting over the one hairbrush that we managed to bring for the four of us makes the thought of moving one child into her own apartment an *almost* welcome one.

9:13 am
Have finally found a coffee shop to counteract the swamp water that passes for coffee in the hotel room. Now for mandatory Chicago sightseeing before move-in at 1 pm.

11:51 am
AM NOT ENCOURAGED BY SIGHTSEEING. Somehow the “no guns allowed” signs posted in multiple public spaces do not bring me the comfort no doubt intended by well-meaning public officials. Have called college off.

No Guns
While I am confident in Girl 1’s intent to enforce the “no gun” policy, it’s really the other people I’m worried about.

1:01 pm
Turns out, I am not allowed to call college off. So, this is happening.

2:16 pm
An hour after arriving at the residence building, finding parking, and checking in, we are officially ready to move in. We have been given a large cardboard box with wheels intended to hold all of the child’s things and get us from the car to the elevators. Of course, we got the box with obscenities graffiti-ed on the side. I wanted to think a college student was the culprit. But looking around, I now believe it was a father.

The Move-In Box
Girls 1-3 were far more amused by the graffiti than I raised them to be…maybe.

2:18 pm
Have just cursed loudly (it was only supposed to be in my head) in front of a group of students and their parents. Am fairly certain that no one is going to invite me to dinner on parents’ weekend…except whoever put the graffiti on our move-in box. I have narrowed it down to three likely candidates.

3:25 pm
In the apartment and witnessing a modern day miracle. Like the Biblical story of the loaves and fishes that Jesus multiplied to feed the masses, the child’s suitcases have produced four times their original amount and we can now clothe the entire homeless population of Chicago. Assuming they are ok with crop tops and Converse hi-tops, of course.

3:46 pm
Have met one of the three apartment mates and her parents. Girl 1’s exact words, “Please don’t overwhelm her.” I don’t know what she’s talking about. Girl 2 quietly sulked in a corner looking angst-ridden. Girl 3 only sang and danced in the background five times after being told to stop four times. And I only told one story about cats. Granted, it was the one about the time we (accidentally) packed a cat on the moving truck from California back to Virginia. But the roommate is from California, so it was relevant. Overall, I think it went well.

4:18 pm
I am sweating in places that I did not think likely to sweat.

5:37 pm
Am sitting in Chicago rush hour traffic because, apparently, the fate of the civilized world rests on our ability to go to IKEA at this exact moment. Also, there is no overhead lighting in the bedrooms.

7:56 pm
Am no longer worried about the child being murdered on the streets of Chicago as I almost murdered all three during the IKEA (and subsequent Target) excursion. Turns out she and her sisters are much better at avoiding agitated adults than I assumed, which will prove useful in the event of a mugging. The entire experience was like herding cats…cats that make you pay hundreds of dollars once they’ve finally resurfaced and brought their collective merchandise to the checkout counter.

This? This is why we had to come to IKEA?

8:01 pm
Came to a screeching halt in front of the apartment and pushed the child out of the passenger’s side door. Did I mention that she had a hall meeting at 8pm? Which she only mentioned once we were in Chicago rush hour traffic on our way to IKEA? On the same night that the entire tri-state region was on their way into Chicago for a Bear’s game, a White Sox game, and the concert of a country singer whose name I do not know?

10:03 pm
And that’s a wrap. For the most part. The rest is up to her. Girl 2 has been on her phone for the last hour. Girl 3 is asleep on the couch. There are clothes on the bed and floor. Notebooks and photos are scattered on all other flat surfaces. And there’s a used cup on the desk. But we did manage to hang the fairy lights. It’s pretty much like home, so I think my job here is done.

Room Moved In
Just like home…until she realizes that no one will cook for her.

The Day After:

4:32 am
Can’t sleep. Somehow this tiny hotel room feels too big without one-fourth of our foursome in it. For 17 years, she’s been by my side. Not sure how to do this whole “moving forward” thing. Also, the 11-year old steals the covers and I’m on the side by the air conditioner. So there’s that.

8:34 am
The one perk about Girl 1 breaking her mother’s heart and moving as far away as possible is that we have one extra day with her before we head home. I shall now attempt to pack a lifetime of memories into this one day – even it kills me.

11:28 am
This may kill me. It is 85 degrees everywhere else, but meanwhile in Chicago…it is cold and windy. I did not pack a jacket. Yesterday was not cold and windy – it was also the day we had to haul 4,000 suitcases around. Must call my therapist and discuss karma immediately.

Only Ray of Sun
I found one ray of sun and was not about to waste it.

1:13 pm
Girls 2 and 3 are apparently dying of malnutrition. Girl 1 is a bit overwhelmed and looks torn between telling us to go and screaming “Take me with you.” And I am determined that we will HAVE FUN AS A FAMILY. This is not a good combination.

4:01 pm
“Let’s do a scavenger hunt!” I said. “It will be fun!” I said. And so we downloaded an online “city tour/scavenger hunt” for Chicago. This was my ingenious plan after agreeing to leave Girl 1 alone for an hour or two to regroup. For the record, it is fun. Or at least, as I have reminded them at multiple points along the way, “We will look back at this and remember how much fun it was. Now stop complaining and smile when I take your picture.”

For the record, this is what “Mandatory Fun” looks like:

Mandatory Fun

9:38 pm
Wrapped the night up with a nice dinner and another trip to Target because umbrellas are essential to the college experience, or so I’ve been told. Also, it was Girl 1’s hairbrush that we were sharing. Have now said goodnight, but choked down all the feels, because final goodbyes are being saved for the morning.

Leaving Day:

8:55 am
Have completed the requisite final breakfast before we leave. In retrospect, calling it “our last meal” may have been a bit melodramatic on my part. Now, it’s goodbye time. Not sure how people do this. There’s a boy with bright purple hair just down the street hugging his parents goodbye and they seem to be handling it just fine. Perhaps they are all on anti-depressants. I should look into that.

Sisters Goodbye
I was fine…until this moment.

9:00 am
The parking meter is officially up. It’s time to do this.

All the Feels
All the feels. It’s not pretty or graceful. But underneath the tears, there is a happy smiling face that will caption her Facebook photos with “So proud of this child! Spread your wings and fly!” and mean it.

9:03 am
It’s very hard to drive with tears blinding your eyes and one-third of your heart standing on a city street watching you drive away. Fortunately, the fact that I am already lost and Girls 2 and 3 are already fighting provides a distraction.

9:05 am
How can you be so excited and proud, yet so scared and filled with longing at the same time? This is hard. That’s all there is to it. But she has spread her wings…and she has landed right where she was meant to be.


After twelve hours of driving, and I kid you not, almost running out of gas again in West Virginia, we arrived home. I did it. I moved my first child into college, albeit a college that is 737 miles away (but who’s counting).

I keep wondering if it would be easier if she were only an hour or two away. And yes, maybe it would be easier for weekend visits or to get her home on holidays, but 10 miles or 1,000, she has still moved on to the next phase of her life.

For her, this is the start of everything. She has known what she wanted to do since she was five years old and she has been preparing for it every second since then. And I’ve been helping by teaching her independence. I’ve been pushing her when she needed pushing and carrying her when she needed carrying. I’ve been loving her and supporting her and daring her to reach far and wide. Likewise, her sisters have cheered and adored her every move, even when it was hidden by bickering.

The fact is, we have dreamed about this together. And together, we have seen her find the place where she belongs.

But for me, this is the end of one of the most precious times I will ever know. OF COURSE, I won’t stop being her mom and she won’t stop needing me. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about knowing her life inside and out. It’s about checking on her after she’s fallen asleep, even when she’s no longer a baby, but a long, lanky teen chock-full of dreams and ambition. It’s about an empty bedroom that echoes with years of laughter and tears and friends and late night chats, and yes, late night lectures. It’s about not being there to nag about homework or to make her favorite dinner just because it’s been a hard week. It’s about knowing I did my job and I did it well, but also, that I got lucky with this child who is so brilliant and funny and…ready.

It’s about letting a part of myself go into a world that I know to be cruel and unforgiving, just as I know it to be beautiful and filled with the kind of laughter that makes your heart want to burst.

So to all of you parents out there who proffered up your own experiences, on the one hand, I want to shake you and say, “Why didn’t you tell me what it was really like?!” But, I also want to say that I see you behind the smiles. And I know your heart – complete with the fear, longing, excitement, and pride that currently fills it.

We did well, you and I. If nothing else, we’ve sent these children of ours across a bridge that we helped to build. And hopefully, on college graduation day, when we find them again on the other side, we will be ready to usher them into an even bigger world of light, beauty, and infinite possibility.

In the meantime, only 47 days until Parents’ Weekend. Just saying.

Anna Strock
Anna has spent the last 18 years writing, directing creative projects, and trying to be the best mom possible to her three girls. When she's not exploring Richmond for the latest and greatest resources, offerings, and activities, she can be found daydreaming on travel blogs, drinking too much coffee, and running kids to endless activities.