If you’ve ever watched David Attenborough on the BBC’s Natural History Unit, then you know that all animals have common, if not strange, rituals. From mating rituals to nesting rituals, marking important life moments and the passage of time are ubiquitous practices across all animal species. And perhaps one of the least-understood and most-common human ones is the college move-in ritual.
I recently returned from moving my oldest daughter into college. Some of you who’ve been through this before can likely relate. Others who have yet to experience this life passage, I can only say this: when it’s your turn, make sure to bring lots of tissues, snacks, and patience. Throw in the measuring tape while you’re at it.
During the process, one of my emotional coping mechanisms was to distance myself from the experience just enough to observe how insane the whole thing is. Here is my Attenborough-like take on this ritual in three acts.
Act One – Preparing for the Journey
It doesn’t matter how small the dorm room is, or how many roommates will be crammed into that tiny space. Somehow, the shopping, packing, and schlepping preparations are akin to an expedition to hike Mount Everest, where the summit includes coed bathrooms, frosh mixers, and frat parties.
It starts weeks before – if not months. However, I’m told that if you’re moving in your son, it often only starts days before, if at all. Not to be too gender-stereotyping here, but some boys have been known to just throw a bunch of clothes into a few suitcases and call it a day.
In our case, it started weeks before, with my wife doing her due-diligence. She began by talking to every friend who’s gone through this before, then subscribing to every online list-serve, and eventually triangulating every social media account of any acquaintance, so she could compile a list of best practices. The advice ranged from which type of luggage to use (the best are the IKEA-like blue bags that can easily fold-away after usage to not take up too much dorm-room space; definitely do not use big suitcases) to which types of organizational containers to buy (there’s not a lot of floor space, so take advantage of the verticality and buy tall shelving units).
In parallel, my daughter began her own due-diligence, which didn’t always jive with her mother’s. For example, despite my wife nudging my daughter every day for weeks to start packing, my daughter wouldn’t even put the first item in the first bag until she had a complete list of everything she needed. And I don’t mean having a complete list written down; I mean having in her possession everything on said list. So, the actual placing of items into bags didn’t start until 48 hours before take-off, which led to more than one argument in our household.
Let me add a clarifier here. Thank goodness, we can provide our kids a warm bed, a well-stocked fridge, and many creature-comforts every day, so they and we appreciate that we don’t “need” anything. Yet somehow, we found ourselves “needing” to purchase more stuff — a lot more stuff. And with online purchasing being so accessible today, it was as easy as touching a cell phone screen to buy that one more item deemed “essential” by friends and college gear websites. As my wife said at one point, “It was raining Amazon.”
Since she was moving across the country, we didn’t want to have to pack everything into bags that we’d have to check-in on the plane. So, the next challenge became where to ship all that stuff. We were fortunate enough to have friends who offered their place as our staging ground. So, we bought and had shipped at least a dozen boxes worth of stuff to their New York city home.
Let me say here publicly to them: thank you! Along with your three children and giant Labrador retriever, adding all our boxes to your apartment was a very menschy thing to do, and we are extremely grateful.
This tactic paid off because when we checked-in for our flight, the lady behind the counter was impressed that we only had three giant bags, as she told us that some kids going off to college were coming with as many as six. My daughter beamed with pride… and then elbowed me in the ribs before I could tell the nice lady that the other 200 pounds of stuff was already waiting for us in New York.
Act Two – Outfitting the Dorm Room
Once we arrived in the town that would be her home for the next four years, my daughter started working her contact list. It turns out that all Gen Z’ers are the stars in the modern-day equivalent of the Kevin Bacon Game, since they can connect to anyone on the planet in under six moves. Working the network allowed her to find a returning student already living in the dorms, who keyed us in to her room the day before new students were scheduled to move in. With this early access, we could take measurements of the room, so we’d know exactly how much space we’d have to jam in the bookshelf, mini-fridge, microwave, etc.
We were so proud of how clever we were to pack a measuring tape and carry it at all times, as we rushed off to Target to buy the full-length mirror, bathroom caddy, and shoe rack that would be essential for my daughter to have a successful freshman year. Alas, Target was already sold-out… of everything! Guess we weren’t so clever, after all.
It didn’t take long for us to find a Container Store though, which became our new Promised Land. Maximizing space in the micro-dorms room tests even the greatest Tetris master. We were committed to squeezing every square inch out of that room, and so were all the other parents in the store. It was like every family was taking a PhD course in engineering. They had their notebooks and pencils and calculators and protractors, working the angles and vectors to make it all fit perfectly.
Pushing the cart around the store for the first hour, all the dads formed a silent fraternity, as we nodded in knowing recognition to each other, playing our roles as the grab-stuff-off-the-high-shelf-and-push-the-cart-but-don’t-say-anything-if-you-know-what’s-good-for-you-dad. We all marveled in quiet acquiescence as the moms and kids argued over which of the hundred different types of hampers, mini-wastebaskets, and desk lamps would be the perfect ones. At one point, I heard a daughter say to her mother, “Is this about you, or is this about me?!”
As I was contemplating taking out a second mortgage on my home to pay for all these new organizational materials, I overheard a father saying to his wife, “He won’t be the first kid who goes off to college and lives out of his bag.” Poor sap. I knew what the rest of his day was going to look like.
By the second hour, I was starting to fade. I needed snacks. Fortunately, my wife knew this moment would come and she whipped out a power bar and fed it to me like I was a hangry 5-year-old about to drop onto the floor and refuse to move another inch. She brilliantly launched this preemptive attack so I was forced to keep pushing the overflowing cart in circles with no reprieve.
After an eternity, we made our way to the check-out line with my wife still lauding the benefits of a label maker, while my daughter quietly removed it from our cart, replacing it with a box of colorful LED lights.
Act Three – The Move-In
We set the alarm for the crack of dawn so we could be at the dorms at the very moment they opened for new students to move in. We ordered an XL Uber so we could take everything in one trip, and I was proud of how well my wife and daughter Jenga’ed the hell out of that Chevy Suburban to fit it all.
When we arrived at the dorms, there were already a half dozen families in front of us, but the line moved quickly. Before we knew it, we were sliding, pushing, pulling, and otherwise schlepping all that stuff into the building, up the elevator, and down the hall to her dorm room. It took multiple trips, but the staging was complete and we were ready for the actual move-in within 10 minutes of the opening bell sounding.
Once again, I assumed my role. It was not for me to weigh in on decisions about what goes where. I was just there to assemble, lift, and mount all the items that required assembly, lifting, and mounting. The school was very clear that screwing anything into the walls was absolutely verboten, allowing me a perfect opening for my favorite dad-joke of the weekend, “See — there’s no screwing in college, sweetheart.”
Then began the arguing over how to hang pictures and secure shelves on the walls. Should we use command hooks or zip ties? Should we use double-sided tape or poster-glue? At one point, the kind, older facilities manager was making the rounds, checking in on all the new students, and offering any advice. When he saw the type of sticky material we were using to put things on the walls, he lamented that it was going to peel off the paint when she moved out. We blushed and apologized, as he said forlornly, “Do what you gotta do,” and shuffled to the next room.
Because my daughter and wife were so well-prepared and well-organized, the actual move-in of real stuff took less than an hour. We couldn’t believe how fast it went. The rest of the time we lingered in the room, helping my daughter decide where to hang pictures, how to string LED lights, and what was the safest way to add more extension cords and electrical outlets so she wouldn’t bring down the power grid for the entire Upper West Side. And “helping” is really a euphemism for my wife offering unsolicited advice that my daughter wasn’t always looking for.
As I was standing precariously on the edge of my daughter’s narrow twin bed hanging up her new lights, trying desperately not to fall, I was struck by a realization: moms trying to control their daughter’s room layout and dads trying to be aloof are just our unconscious ways of coping with this unprecedented and bittersweet change in our lives.
We each played our parts in this important family ritual. Yes, our daughter needed us there to help her get settled for this next stage, but we were also there because we needed to be there for ourselves. We needed help preparing for this next stage in our lives too, this moment when our little baby was leaving the nest.
We tearfully hugged our daughter and said goodbye. Walking away, looking back over our shoulders, my wife said to me, “I don’t think she’s looking back this time.”
I knew my daughter would be okay. Us, on the other hand, we’ll just have to wait and see.