The Evolving College Student and the Reluctant Mother

EDThe honeymoon period is over for my college freshman. Roommates are no longer vested in showing only their best selves. Their patience for each other and for their cramped living quarters is wearing thin. Par for the course, I inform my daughter, but my advice is unsatisfying. She is the one who has to live with the stress.

During our rare visit with her, I notice a new nervous habit and reach out to steady her shaking leg. My people-pleasing first-born feels the weight of her own expectations for academics, sports, and social pressure. And she hasn’t yet discovered the impossibility of satisfying every demand.

Observing her in her college atmosphere feels like observing an animal in the wild. She is familiar enough, yet so very different from the girl who nervously parted from me with a crushing hug and tremulous voice just six months ago.

One senses a maturity-in-residence, not quite adult-like or permanent, but more of a stepping-up-to-the-plate persona. Having had to ‘rise to the occasion’ and exert independence in a variety of new, and sometimes terrifying situations, she radiates elevated self-esteem.

My observations of this transformation mystify me. I notice myself withdrawing into my own thoughts, stepping back a pace or two for fear of disturbing the natural order of things. Here, on my daughter’s turf, I am not in charge – not by a long shot. I know that I am welcome, but what is my role?

I dissect the situation like a wildlife researcher and get the strange feeling that I am actually part of the study – as if I am part of a documentary film narrated by Jane Goodall.

Look at how the baby monkey has adapted to its new environment, slipping into place in an unfamiliar social structure. Now watch how the mother monkey, when allowed to visit the baby, displays uncharacteristic behaviors. She offers ritualized mothering gestures but carefully takes cues from her baby about how much is acceptable. She appears to be out of sorts, almost neurotic, in this habitat. Notice how she follows the baby, never leading the way. She seems unable to take her eyes off the baby.

True, this. My every thought and attention is directed toward my daughter. I snap endless photos of her as I did when she was first born, trying to capture her essence. I anticipate pulling out my photo library for friends when I return home, boring them to tears with elementary stories of my daughter’s every expression. ‘In this photo, she was telling a joke. In this one, she was waving goodbye….’

My mind can hardly process the evolution of my college student, which is happening at warp speed.

We sit down to dinner at a restaurant of my daughter’s choosing and she remarks about her favorite items on the menu. She orders first then leads the conversation with questions for her father about his job. (What?!)

He takes the bait and they launch into a mutual exchange of questions and answers. This unusual conversation is followed by a debate on current politics. (I begin to feel dizzy.)

After a lively exchange, daughter turns her attention to me and asks, “Mom, how are you? Tell me about your life.”

By now I am close to fainting from shock.

“That’s it,” I think. “Who are you and what have you done with my daughter?”

Where are the dramatic teen stories? The complaints about teachers? I’m loaded with advice about these topics. Perhaps you’d like to know how to get a stain out of your favorite shirt? Oh, you figured it out? Good on you.

Adjusting to this new, poised version of my 18 year old is a challenge I hadn’t prepared for. Where my husband easily jumped aboard the speeding train that is our daughter, I had barely arrived at the station. In our absence, our little girl blossomed.

I am ecstatic, truly. But the expression on my face betrays melancholy, if not utter confusion. Disappointment in myself sets in, for I am unable to pull myself together to be the beacon of light I wish to be.

My daughter doesn’t seem to notice my struggle, or is too polite to mention it.
I absentmindedly wonder what else she isn’t saying. Is this a performance of sorts to reassure the nervous parent? My mind simply cannot settle on acceptance of what is unfolding before me.

The long ride home is silent, punctuated by tentative queries from Husband about my emotional well-being. ‘I’m fine,” I reply without conviction, then take to letter-writing by way of explanation to my daughter who may also be bewildered about my strange behavior.

Upon unpacking at home, I am surprised to find a letter stuffed into my bag by my daughter. In it, she details her own mixed feelings, offering an awareness of the major changes taking place within her.

‘I find it thrilling and scary to be taking control of my life, yet am pleased to feel confident in making decisions.’ she reveals.

The letter closes with a dose of gratitude and an affirmation of devotion to a family who is ‘never far from my mind and whose advice I still seek and appreciate.’

Cue the waterworks and the narrator:

“See how, despite the baby monkey’s independence, it checks in with the mother’s response for feedback and reassurance. The mother is placated and begins to assimilate her level of involvement accordingly. This mother-baby pair is learning how to individuate whilst honoring the bond between them.”

One day, this experience of separation, full of confusion and transformation, will all come together in a fond memory of how it felt to be a family in flux, emerging as it must into a new phase of life.

The Scenic Vista

scenic vistaA friend who is ahead of me in the parenting timeline predicted that my first-born would return from college with a grateful heart. The distance from home and family would create the necessary space for a paradigm shift. And so it happened in the form of a letter.

‘Dear Fam,’ it began. ‘I never realized….’

Principessa, overflowing with new-found insight, detailed aspects of our family values, traditions, and relationships like a seasoned philosopher. She thanked us for our support and expressed pride in our family. I was humbled by the sentiment. But the real reward was a section on self-reflection in which Prinicipessa’s blossoming confidence shined through.

She listed an inventory of attributes that have served her well in her first semester at college – her ‘toolkit’ she called it. It included communication skills, resilience, self-worth, humility, responsibility, hopefulness and faith – all of which she attributed to parenting skills.

When I recovered my tear-soaked eyesight, I breathed a sigh that I might have been holding onto for 18 years. Since the onset of motherhood I wondered if I was doing parenting ‘right.’ Even with the knowledge that right and perfect don’t exist, I longed for reassurance that my choices would, at the very least, have a net positive effect.

I’m still on the parenting highway with a long way to go. But this brief return of a college-aged daughter has been like a rest stop with a scenic vista. A chance to get out and stretch my weary self, breathe in the big picture, and offer gratitude for the journey.

I look back on the road we’ve travelled and wonder how we arrived safely at this point. Husband and I knew we wanted to take this family trip through life, but let’s face it, we had no idea where we were headed or how to get there. None of us do. We hop on board with the vaguest idea of what parenting has to offer.

Taking stock from this spot, I realize that this is for the best. No human can trump the trip-planning skills of life. We can prep and plan but life will take us off-road through adventures we never dreamed of.

Like a good geocacher who has found a treasure, before I leave this resting place, I will offer these nuggets of observation for those who trail me in time and space, in hopes that it will ease their journey.

  1. It’s all going to be okay. This is not to be confused with ‘nothing bad will ever happen.’ Trials will arise and roads will be blocked. Each is an invitation. You will either find your way around them or you will crash mightily. Either way, life will go on and so will you. Find comfort in that.
  2. The fact that you don’t know where you’re going doesn’t mean you won’t arrive. Just follow the signs and dare to explore. You have what it takes. I promise.
  3. Love really does conquer all. At the end of the trip, love is all that matters. Loving each other, loving the self, and loving life is the hardest, simplest, and most valuable aspiration in the world. Return to it as many times as you stray from it and it will welcome you home.

Life beckons me to return to the reality of the road where I likely will lose sight of this sweet perspective, at least temporarily. Letters of reassurance from grateful children may be far and few between. Rough travel is bound to surface and challenge my bolstered confidence in parenting. But having reached this point, I can say with certainty that the view is worth the struggle.  Stop and enjoy it when you get the chance.

Distance Parenting and Curve Balls

parenting worryWaking to a text from my college Freshman declaring “I’m scared,” was enough to give me a mini heart attack. Her physical safety had been inadvertently threatened by the thoughtless act of a misguided roommate. A week’s worth of distance-parenting ensued as my daughter found herself involved in an intense process that resulted in removal of said roommate.

Supporting Principessa from afar was a frustrating experience. I wanted desperately to rescue her, coddle her, speak for her… As mothers do, I wanted to kiss the boo-boo and make it better. Not unfortunately, the miles between us prevented any such nonsense, which gave Principessa the opportunity to rise up and shine through adversity.

Principessa had the wherewithal to handle herself with maturity and sensibility. Witnessing her instant evolution from child to young adult was gratifying to say the least. I felt as if I had arrived in a place I had dreamt about for years. It was a place that validated my (and Husband’s) work as parents.

Husband and I shook our heads in disbelief at the insanity of it all. As parents, we send a child off with hopes that we’ve prepared them for life. But we can never prepare for every conceivable situation. We can only hope that the skills they learned will serve them when life throws a curve ball.

When all was said and done, I felt relieved, of course, but also a bit damaged – strung out from sleepless nights of worry and days filled with phone calls. A week’s worth of uncertainty had taken its toll.

Friend asked why I hadn’t ‘freaked out’ about this violation to my first-born. I could thank yoga, meditation, prayer, denial, level-headedness, or any number of tools in my toolbox. I’m not really sure what held me together, but there was the underlying belief that Clarity works better than Chaos. I can’t allow Chaos to run the show, especially when my kid’s safety is on the line. Besides, I’d like to save ‘Freaked Out’ for an unidentified special occasion – one that can’t be solved with sanity. One that hopefully will never arrive.

BOO! Who?!

scaredI’ve never enjoyed scary things. Halloween, haunted houses, thriller movies, and ghost stories make my skin crawl. People who revel in being frightened tell me about the satisfying adrenaline rush they get when they’re scared out of their wits. Here, we have to agree to disagree. Feeling terrified = bad.

Until this weekend, I hadn’t realized how far the scope of my faintheartedness extended. Husband thought he’d done a good deed by surprising me with a visit from Principessa who was supposed to be seven hours away at college.

There I stood, at the crack of dawn, half asleep on my feet in the kitchen. Stealthily, Principessa crept around the corner and planted herself silently in front of me. I thought I was seeing a ghost.

When I tell you that my brain stopped working, I’m not exaggerating. My body went into full-blown terror mode. My mind literally could not reconcile what my eyes were seeing.

When I managed to unfreeze myself, I began screaming repeatedly, “OH MY GOD!” until my brain unstuck itself and released a cascade of word salad that had my family laughing their butts off. The video that Husband took to capture the moment validates a breakdown of the senses so complete that I’m still reeling from the after-shocks.

For the remainder of the weekend I felt a little off-kilter. It was like playing that game where you return to a room and have to guess the one thing that has changed. In the weeks that Principessa had been gone, I had become accustomed to the uncomfortable feeling that her absence created. The empty seat at the dinner table, the lonely bedroom, the random pile of shoes that never moved. And now, here she was, in the flesh!

Like a new mother, I snapped multiple photos of my first-born with a desire to capture every nuance of her being. Principessa might as well have been an exotic bird – such was my renewed incredulity of her beauty and perfection. She would catch me staring at her with a silly grin on my face, so completely enamored of her that I had to fight the urge to squeal with delight.

The peaceI felt at having my entire brood together under one roof was indescribably satisfying. My heart and mind breathed a sigh of relief, creating a relaxation response that informed me of the low-level anxiety I’d been harboring since launching Principessa.

This emptying of the nest is teaching me all manner of things about resilience and balance and priorities. I could say that I’ve valued my time as a mother up to this point, but I’d not understood the concept of cherishing until the moments began to slip through my fingers as quickly as grains of sand.

My daughter is absent in form but has never been closer to my thoughts. The less she needs me, the more I long to take care of her. The more I say goodbye to her, the more it hurts because I know that the next time I see her she will be an even newer version of herself – one that may challenge my unrealistic urge to keep her all to myself.

Principessa wondered why I didn’t have more questions to ask her. In theory, I wanted to know every detail of her new life. But her very presence was enough to convince me that all was well. She exuded peace and confidence. My girl had matured at warp speed by gobbling up the buffet of opportunities available to her as a college Freshman.

We parted with mutual endearment. “I wish you could be at college with me,” she said, which made me wince. Even when we are exactly where we’re meant to be, doing what is best at the right time, we can’t help but long for the presence of our loved ones to share in the joy of the experience.

But this time belongs to her. I wouldn’t dream of inserting myself into the forefront of this adventure. Instead, I will take my place at the back of the book, buried amidst the pile of ever-growing bibliographic references that contribute to the captivating story that is her.

Faring thee well now.
Let your life proceed by its own design.
Nothing to tell now.
Let the words be yours, I’m done with mine.

‘Cassidy’ by the Grateful Dead

Launching A Child

Woman-saying-goodbye-FarewellMy sister-in-law questioned my sincerity when I texted that I was having fun moving my eldest daughter into college for the first time. All bets were on me coming apart at the seams.

I had given ample indication of emotional fragility in preparation for this momentous occasion. In the weeks following high school graduation, a song on the radio, a memory jogged while driving past a playground…anything, or nothing, could turn me to mush instantaneously. The world conspired against me, it seemed. How else to explain the untimely (or timely) arrival of an email from a photo-sharing site titled, ‘Your life 7 years ago’ which showed images of my college Freshman in elementary school. Cruelty, I say.

The fact that college move-in day landed on my birthday heightened my self-pity. ‘Worst birthday present ever,’ I grumbled. But my conscience was having none of it. Just days before, I was informed of a local high school graduate who had died in an accident. His mother, I realized, wouldn’t be able to transition her son to the next phase of life. In solidarity with this mother, I vowed to enjoy the privilege before me.

Kahlil Gibran says that children never belong to us. They only come through us. I’ve had to remind myself of this countless times in my parenting history. The urge to hold onto the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me is, at times, intense. But as the wise Dory says in Finding Nemo, “If you don’t let anything happen to ‘em, nothing will ever happen. No fun for Nemo.”

I have sent away a girl of eighteen years who, in my heart, might as well be four again; for the way I felt in separating from her was no less shocking. Dear ones have been asking how I’m doing. Impossible to answer. I’m ‘doing’ every emotion known to humanity, and have yet to land on a description that encapsulates the sensation of launching a beloved child.

My heart reaches out to every parent I crossed paths with on campus – the mother struggling to hold herself together, the parents at the pub drowning their stress, and the fathers – more than one – who were victimized by a phenomenon that Husband dubbed, ‘Dad-Shaming.’ Students, succumbing to the frenzy of the occasion, would periodically scream at their well-meaning fathers in public. “Dad! I know that! Let me do it! Leave me alone!!!!!”

In the next several years, these college students will morph into young adults. When they return, we will have to get acquainted with them all over again, leaving space for the child-cum-stranger whose tastes and manners may be grossly unfamiliar.

Meanwhile, we will be learning a new parenting style, conducted from afar and constructed on a whole new set of rules. We will love from a distance, always hoping, but never quite knowing, if it will be enough. We will worry and encourage and pray our way through it. And at the end of the college experience, we will wonder, as we do now, how did it go so fast?

On Children

 

Letter to University from Mom

collegeBoundDear University,

You are about to receive a gift. We call her Principessa and she is my daughter. To you, she is just a statistic – one set of criteria that met with approval for acceptance into your esteemed institution.

Principessa will be leaving all that she knows to join you several hundred miles from home. She will be on her own for the first time. I don’t expect you to parent her or to take over for me in my absence. But I do expect you to provide her with what she needs to survive and to thrive over the next several years.

I hope you fulfill the promises you made when you wooed her into your fold – a solid education that will lead to job prospects, a safe environment, and ample diversity and opportunities to stimulate her personal growth.

This seems like the least I can ask for my financial investment. Which, by the way, is significantly higher than many of her fellow classmates. For instance, the athlete with the coveted ‘full boat.’ Apparently his physical skills are more highly valued than my daughter’s passion and talent for nurturing children and her long-standing desire to become a teacher.

My husband and I will pay an inflated sticker price for the reward of our daughter’s college education. To say that I’m not bitter or worried about the ability to afford this would be a lie. But I’m willing to bury my negativity in exchange for her ultimate success and happiness.

University, you have no idea how special my daughter is to me. And I get the feeling that you probably don’t care – except for caring that she reflects well on your reputation. Don’t worry, she’ll do you proud, just as she has done for us all these years.

Principessa is one in 17,000 to you, but she is one of a kind to us, her family. Please be good to her. She deserves the best you have to offer.

Sincerely,

Mom of the college Freshman

Accepted, Excited and Panicked

collegebound2I knew by the size of the envelope that it was an acceptance letter, but I still held my breath when Principessa tore into it.  This was her top-choice university and the outcome could make or break her sanity.  She was ecstatic for a solid five minutes until nervousness set in.

I’ve tried reassuring her without being untruthful.  Sort of like telling a toddler that a vaccine shot will hurt – but only for a minute.

To be honest, I’m questioning my success in preparing her for what’s ahead.  My confidence in this regard has been taking hits of late. Like when we were driving at night.  I flipped my rear-view mirror to block the headlight glare from behind.  “Wow!” Principessa exclaimed.  “Does every car have that feature?!”

This is the same honors student who thought that the car made its own windshield washer fluid.  No joke.

I find myself dispersing random facts of life at every opportunity to ensure that I’ve covered all possible topics before releasing my first-born to the world. A crash course in Life, if you will.

  • Expect to feel free.  You are about to grasp that Golden Ring of Freedom that every teen craves.  For the first time, you’ll have no parental supervision.  But let me remind you that even in the absence of authority, actions have consequences.  And the fact that you will make more of your own decisions means that you will assume more of the responsibility for the outcome.  Think before you act.  Or as your grandpa the carpenter would say, “Measure twice.  Cut once.”
  • Expect to feel lonely.  Even if you’ve forged strong bonds with new friends and are having the time of your life, you will, at some point, feel lonely.  You may be standing shoulder to shoulder in a crowd of 10,000 students on the college quad and it will strike you that you are utterly alone.  The good news is that loneliness is a slingshot.  It propels you back in the direction of meaningful connection.  Just as spontaneously as you fell into loneliness, you will reconnect and wonder what your heart was fussing about.
  • Expect to feel amazed.  You probably feel pretty worldly already.  But I assure you, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.  Get ready for jaw-dropping stories and experiences, the likes of which may test your faith in humanity.  You’re leaving a bubble of relative predictability and heading to a melting pot of cultures, customs and values.  This isn’t a bad thing.  If you observe from a reasonable distance like a wildlife researcher, your observations will resemble a really good movie.  Grab some popcorn.
  • Expect to be betrayed.  There’s no sugar-coating this one, darling.  A friend will tell your secret, or a roommate may steal your boyfriend.  But at the end of the day, there will always be more good in the world than bad.  I can’t give you scientific proof of this, but I believe it with all my heart.
  • Expect to be loved.  You know this one.  Love has no boundaries.  Your family will not forget you or wane in our affection while you’re gone.  Your place in our hearts is guaranteed.

What I’m trying to say, my dear, is that yes, college is a big deal for a small-town girl. But it’s just another season of life.  There will be harsh Winters AND glorious Springs.  As long as your heart beats, you will weather the seasons, because that’s what humans do.  They live through all manner of experiences from horrific tragedy to mind-blowing joy.  Some survive and others thrive.  Each decides.

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