Any parent with a high school senior knows the torture of going through the college admissions process. It’s like the ultimate test of parenting, straining the child-parent relationship that has evolved over the last 18 years. It wreaks havoc on what you thought was a good relationship, and you wonder if everything will ever go back to normal. And to compound the situation, you know the future isn’t far off when there will be more distance between the two of you, both physically and emotionally.
One day during the fall of my daughter’s senior year, instead of nagging about college essays or talking about applications, I tried to distract her with a fun topic—the summer between high school and college.
“Allie, any ideas of what you want to do this summer?”
She stopped abruptly and said in a snooty teenage voice, “I don’t know yet, but the summer before college is supposed to be the best summer of my life”.
Wow, that was news to me. “The best summer of her life”—what did that mean? Was she going to sleep late, hang out with friends and ignore her family as much as possible?
I thought back to my own summer before college. I was a counselor at a local day camp and drove a van with screaming kids every day. It was kind of fun (mainly because there were a few cute guy counselors), but not really exciting. During after hours, I hung out with high school friends and relaxed at the beach. I didn’t think much of making sure I spent time with my parents. I figured my parents would always be around, but my friends and I were going our separate ways.
“The best summer of my life”—where did she get this idea from? I didn’t want to make fun of her, so I let the conversation die. One night, after the drama of college admissions had faded a bit, she brought up the topic of what to do during the summer. She had read about a mother and daughter spending time traveling together and suggested we give it a try. She wanted special time, and thought the idea of traveling would guarantee that.
Wow, in my wildest mommy dreams I never thought she’d be coming to me to spend time together; I was the one always begging her! But was this against all the child psychology advice I’d been filling myself with (give them space, let them separate)? I didn’t know, and I decided not to care. She was leaving the nest, and I was going to take any morsels of time she was throwing my way.
Then came the demands. She wanted to be in charge, in charge of deciding where to go, what to see and where to eat. She just didn’t want to handle the messy details of flights, trains, hotels and paperwork—the not so fun part of making travel arrangements. OK, I accepted the deal.
She chose Spain as our destination. For each city, she researched the sights and planned each day. She even read up on local food specialties and searched out the best restaurants. I don’t speak Spanish, so I had to rely on her to be my translator. It was the first time in our relationship when she was in charge and I was the dependent one.
We spent our time on planes and trains reading Glitter and Glue and The Joy Luck Club, perfect complements to our trip. At night, we rested together and talked about different mother-daughter relationships and how ours compared.
What a gift it was for me to watch the transformation of my daughter from teenager to young adult, able to navigate foreign cities and ready to take on the world. She still wavered back and forth between child and young adult, like never knowing where her passport was, but that was OK—at least it still gave me the chance to be the responsible one, once in a while.
My most memorable night was eating dinner at an outdoor cafe, as she questioned me about my college years and asked for advice to get the most out of hers. We talked about having fun, but not going crazy; working hard, but not being obsessed with grades; getting involved, but not overcommitting. We also discussed setting life goals, short and long term, and trying to get the most out of college by not being afraid to take risks to explore the unfamiliar. That night, back at the hotel, we stayed up late looking at pictures from her childhood and reminiscing.
Returning home, the remaining weeks before school flew by. Before I knew it, we were standing in her dorm room, hugging and saying goodbye. Summer was over, and she was ready to start the new phase of her life. As I left, I made sure to tack a photo on her wall of the two of us, taken in Barcelona.
Of course you don’t have to run off to Europe to connect with your child—it could be something as simple as a weekend away camping, or something closer to home, but with just the two of you. Carving out special time during the summer before college is important. Don’t miss out on it.
At least for now, my daughter thinks of our summer traveling together as the best summer of her life, but I know she’s just beginning to build her life and there will be better summers to come. For me, it was definitely up there in my “best summer” category, giving me the chance to fill my reservoir with memories and spend time connecting, making our disconnect just a little less painful.