I try not to cry. My husband and I hug Tina one more time outside her college dorm. Suddenly she looks smaller, but her voice sounds steady and reassuring, “I’ll be okay Mom,” she says, smiles and walks away.
My biggest worry besides rapists and shootings and drugged solo cups is she’ll be lonely. Tina’s a little shy, an introvert, not one to reach out to people.
On the drive home I picture her alone in her dimly lit room, cross-legged on her bed covered with teal and gray throw pillows, her new roommate Lisa off somewhere hanging out with friends.
Earlier that day, as we unpacked boxes, Lisa and her mother walked in and introduced themselves. After a few polite exchanges we moved silently around the small room until someone knocked on the door. Two chatty girls came in and told us they were Lisa’s high school friends, both freshman who live on campus. My husband and I flashed each other disappointed looks.
Tina and Lisa found each other on a roommate matching site and, on almost every question, they hit it off. Music, personality, the TV show Dexter, night owls who like a chilly room. I just assumed they were in this first year together, new to making friends at college and likely to cling to each other for a while.
On move-in day, the parking lot buzzed with campus volunteers, overwhelmed parents and nervous students balancing mini-fridges on dollies. But when got back from dinner, there was no sign of life in the dorm. No open doors, no laughter or music. Not a single resident aide.
All year I’d pictured how the day was supposed to go, how my only child would leave her protected nest and settle into her new world:
The RA would introduce herself, smile warmly, answer all my questions before I left, then invite Tina to the dorm community room where the girls would pair off and do awkward ice breakers.
But the only RA we met was a typed welcome note taped to her decorated door. “Hi my name is Cat. These are my hours. I love dogs, Starbucks and too many French fries. Oh and in case you need me, here’s my cell.” Smiley face.
The first few weeks, Tina hung out with Lisa and her friends, but after a month she told me she felt like a third wheel and eventually Lisa stopped inviting her.
“It’s not that we don’t get along, Mom. But she doesn’t really talk to me. The other day I said something to her about some show we both like. I knew she heard, but she ignored me. We’re obviously just going to be roommates, which is fine.”
And just like that, I don’t like Lisa.
Suddenly I remember Tina’s elementary school friends who didn’t sit with her on the bus all through middle school. I was devastated, but as usual Tina shrugged it off. She never took drifting friendships personally, instead she saw the ebb and flow as the natural course of things. Even if she was hurt, my overreaction quickly put her feelings into perspective. “Oh my God, Mom, it’s okay,” she’d tell me. “We stopped being friends a while ago and, yes, someone sat with me on the bus.”
“Why don’t you call Elise?” I asked her a few weeks after she started college. “You were friends in high school and you hung out at college freshman orientation. I have no idea why haven’t you gotten together.”
“I don’t know. She lives all the way across campus. We just haven’t.”
“Are you meeting people in class?” I ask.
“Yeah, but I only see them a couple of times a week and it’s not like we have much time to talk.”
Nothing’s working. My daughter’s lonely. She has to be. I know what not being lonely should look like in college and Tina isn’t doing any of it.
“You need to find a way to make that huge campus smaller,” her dad and I tell her. “I know you see your friends from high school, but you need to meet kids on campus. Join a club. Any club, animals, graphic design, the environment. Pick one.”
Tina promises me she’ll join something. I know she’s lying, but it’s how she gets me off her back about her social life.
I can hear myself nagging her into pretend submission and I’m disgusted, but I can’t stop. I need to get this right or my child will suffer.
“I’m fine,” she says. “You guys should be happy I’m not going to that off-campus 18-and-up bar like Lisa does all the time. She doesn’t drink, but lots of underage kids do. That party scene has never been my thing.”
Tina’s been away for more than a semester now and she promises she’s not lonely. She sees her high school friends. She talks to people in class.
She’s not brimming with confidence yet, but she seems comfortable in her own skin and content being by herself. She reassures me she’s eating, sleeping and exercising. She looks good and her grades are stellar.
“Well, then leave her alone,” friends tell me. “She’ll find her way. You’ll make her think something’s wrong with her if you keep asking if she’s made friends.”
And of course they’re right.
So now when she comes home, I try not to ask. Instead, I stare at her new college face and listen when she tells me about her classes, the food, the awesome campus gym and her mute roommate. I analyze new tones in her voice and each time, I sense a growing maturity.
Tina is a thousand times more grounded than I was at her age, which is probably why I keep asking if she’s lonely. At 18, I was emotionally damaged from my childhood, chronically anxious and terrified of every new situation. I certainly didn’t start college as my own best friend.
Sometimes I worry my daughter’s missing out on the full college experience. Except that Tina knows something about herself I learned later in life. She knows who she is and who she doesn’t need to be among five friends or 30,000 students.
During Christmas break, my husband privately asks how she’s doing, “I’m fine, Dad, but it’s a process,” she tells him. And right away I wonder if “process” is code for “unhappy,” which is exactly why she tells her father this instead of me.
Tina trusts herself in ways I never did at her age. She already senses that as her life moves into scary unknowns, she doesn’t need to worry too much because in her own time, she’ll figure it out.
And so now when she comes home, I listen to what she’s been trying to tell me her entire life. She’s not lonely. She’s not miserable. She’d just rather move through the people-world in her own way and at her own pace, which has always been exactly right.
Update: Tina’s a sophomore now. She’s good friends with her roommates and another girl on campus. Her new confidence is striking. What a difference a year (and trusting your child) makes.