Insides and Outsides

14175362566_a3ff63936b_oby Beth Burrell

My daughter left for college last month. This was 18 years in the making and had been the end game for a long time. Yet it still managed to come up suddenly. Just like that, high school was over, or so it felt.

She was out of the house a lot during her final week at home before leaving for college, seeing friends, saying good-bye, having ‘last’ everythings. I looked around at one point while she was out and thought – this is what it will feel like without her. A void, an emptiness that only she could fill.

I’d already been through this twice with my older two, but this time was different. She is the baby, the one who would always be here. The one who was either napping at home or more often wherever we were off to, dragged to the moon and back by everyone’s schedules. Destined to see the world from a car seat.

Being third, she had no choice but to be flexible, bending for others, attending our events – concerts, games, move-ins, move-outs, lives. All the while, she was growing up, preparing for the day she would step out herself. Move on. Off to her own adventure.

As far as I can tell so far, it’s working out. College has been good and bad, and we’ve heard about both. She’s sounded alternately upbeat and upset. The first weekend, she called feeling very homesick. She was grateful she’d made some friends during a pre-orientation rafting trip, but her loneliness felt unique.

When I mentioned that a friend’s child (also attending the same college) had told her mom how happy and adjusted my daughter seemed when they’d run into each other, my daughter was shocked. That was not how she’d been feeling at all. How could anyone think that?

So we talked about how quickly we assume that another’s adjustment to newness and change is easier than our own. An adage came to mind that I’d just read recently: “Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides.”

It’s hard for this generation of kids not to. My daughter had already told me how bothered she felt seeing all the new freshman photos on Facebook and Instagram. How thrilled her high school friends looked with new groups of friends, heading to parties, having fun, seemingly excelling at college life. She didn’t feel like posting anything. I told her I understood and it seemed perfectly natural. I suggested she stay off social media, or at least cut back, knowing that could feel lonely too.

Most older college students will tell you they never want to repeat the first few weeks of freshman year. It’s a huge adjustment. Of course there’s a range of experiences and some kids are thrilled to leave home, to be free. But at times, it can feel as if everyone is experiencing the highs, and somehow you got stuck with the lows. Last week, my daughter experienced a huge high when a professor emailed how well her first class presentation had gone, and she’d gotten a part in an upcoming ballet she really wanted. We were happy for her.

Back at home, what I can miss most is her openness. Out of the blue, she will come over and put her arms around me, sometimes when I’m in the middle of cooking, or lost in thought. She doesn’t need a reason to show affection. It comes naturally.

Recently, she interviewed to be an adventure guide next fall for incoming freshmen who take pre-orientation trips. The four-student panel asked her what piece of outdoor equipment she was most like. She thought a moment and said, well, I really like hugs, so I’d say a sleeping bag.

I’d call that a perfect answer.

Beth head shot

Beth Burrell is a journalist who has worked primarily in daily newspaper reporting and in school communications producing parent newsletters. She currently freelances from her home in Merion, Pa., just outside of Philadelphia.


Image: one tree hil. by Andy Rothwell via Flickr







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2 thoughts on “Insides and Outsides

  1. A lovely essay, Beth. Even though it’s been 15 years since my daughter left for college, your piece brought back those memories – and a few tears. Your words likely will bring comfort to other parents experiencing this transition now and also will model how to be supportive of those children venturing out. Thinking of you as you go through your own transition.

  2. No-one’s perfect. But so often we compare our insides to other people’s outsides. Dwelling on our flaws – what we’re not rather than what we’ve got – makes it much harder to be happy. Learning to accept ourselves, warts and all, and being kinder to ourselves when things go wrong, increases our enjoyment of life, our resilience and our well-being. It also helps us accept others as they are.

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