When I sent my sons to college, only Bed Bath & Beyond seemed to understand how I felt

Watching your children go off to college can be an emotional rollercoaster, but finding solace can be costly.

Caitlin Flanagan, contributing editor of The Atlantic, chronicled her fraught experience sending her twin boys to college for the New York Times.

A "funk of sadness" often descends as parents begin to realize that their children no longer ride "bouncy cars, but real ones" and are ready to leave the nest, writes Flanagan. As she prepared for the emotional parting before her sons' first semester, she shares that she "developed a strange relationship" with Bed Bath & Beyond (BB&B), where the salesperson "made going to college seem as big a life step as getting married," she writes.

Though she later came to see the big box store as a "soulless warehouse," she writes that, for a while at least, it seemed to be the "only entity in the world that really understood how I was feeling."

In retail magic, the salesperson produced a list of all the items that a Kenyon College dorm room will and will not provide. Although Flanagan later realized dorm room checklists are essentially all the same, at that moment it felt "like a miraculous document," she writes.  

The flurry of emotion that surrounds a child's first semester will likely lead to the purchase of "dust busters, first-aid kits, irons, extra blankets, flashlights," writes Flanagan. But these objects picked out by worrying parents often just end up buried in the closet until they are emptied out for some May rummage sale, she notes. The parental urge to buy a laundry list of items marketed as "dorm room essentials" will yield more than $5.9 billion dollars this year, reports the National Retail Foundation.

When a dorm room becomes a business opportunity

The new college mattress itself is a major source of profit, notes Flanagan. Far from the mattresses of her own college heyday, which were "lumpy and stained," the modern dorm mattress is "covered in dark blue vinyl... that keeps its secrets," writes Flanagan.

Some families even choose to spend up to $300 on a mattress topper—and that's not including the standard twin XL sheets. According to Flanagan, those who can afford to may try to "pad their child's college experience against any possible hardship, even a too-firm mattress." On the other hand, she notes that it's the intense emotions brought out by a soon-to-be empty home that marketing experts will try to exploit.

But as someone who has since "awakened from the expensive, temporary spell of dorm room madness," Flanagan breaks down a hard truth: what you actually need to buy for your child's new dorm room is "almost nothing."

Bedding and towels can come from home, even a mattress topper can be rendered unnecessary if you just turn the mattress over, she notes. All other needs can be fulfilled through online shopping or even your local postal office.

How one admissions' leader navigates his own son's college journey

Flanagan says the best suggestion came from her sister, who told her sons to "bring a couple of sentimental items from home." Flanagan's son brought her old copy of Franny and Zooey and it was the "first thing pulled from the suitcase," she recalls.

For parents whose children are finally leaving the nest, she offers one last piece of advice, "breathe deeply and remember: a semester is only four months long" (Flanagan, New York Times, 8/1).

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