The Moment I Knew My Son Was Ready For College

by Elise Buie

During the pandemic, my husband, Doug, my children’s stepdad, and I bought an RV and had been patiently waiting for the perfect opportunity to use it. With four children from my previous marriage and two from Doug’s, we’d lived like a modern-day “Brady Bunch,” sans an Alice, since marrying 10 years earlier. Though we relished having a busy house filled with kids, dogs, cats, and chaos, we were looking forward to an empty nest filled with some well-earned peace and quiet.

My youngest son, a car enthusiast and self-taught mechanic, is an aspiring engineer who chose to attend college in Michigan, clear across the country from our Washington State home. Doug and I both thought, what better way to christen the RV than the three of us taking a slow, scenic drive on the way to seeing him off.

With cautious optimism, my son agreed with our plan when we presented it to him. I never thought he would disagree, and, just as I anticipated, he was as amiable as he always was. That’s always how he’s been, from pretty much the time he was born.

Unlike many universities which begin the school year in early fall, my son was accepted as an incoming freshman for his university’s summer session. Given that he was allowed to bring a vehicle to school without the usual one-year wait period, we arranged for him to follow along in his car as Doug and I took turns driving the RV. It was a great plan.

That is until my son’s air conditioner broke somewhere around Montana in scorching 109-degree heat. But being the skilled auto technician he is, we watched with confidence as he slid underneath to examine the undercarriage.

After staying down there for 45-minutes, my son emerged sullen, the realization setting in that the repairs were more extensive than anything he could handle at a campground far from his home garage. Seeing him caked in dirt and drenched in sweat, and picturing him walking into my pristine RV like that, I went into mommy-mode and suggested he take a shower.

Much to my shock and dismay, I might add, my son looked at me with irritation and said words I’ve rarely heard come from his mouth: “No.”

Huh? Doug looked at my son, then me, in silence. The best kind of stepdad, Doug has always had a knack for knowing when to offer his advice and when to let me parent my children in the way my ex and I always have, which doesn’t necessarily align with the way Doug and his ex co-parent their children. Neither is the better way, just different, and we decided long ago that unless one of us asks the other for an opinion, we hang back and voice any words of wisdom we might have in private.

This was one of those times. And also one of those moments when I could’ve used a pinch from Doug telling me to stand down. But alas, our well-established rule held, and he watched (in horror) as I dug my heels into the ground to reinforce my position: “Shower, or else.”

I should’ve known better. As I’ve seen time and again in my work as a family lawyer, and while parenting my four kids, especially during my years as a single parent following my own divorce, the moment you engage in a battle of wills, everyone loses. Neither of you gets what you want, and both of you walk away angry as a result.

Which is precisely what happened when I finally asked Doug to step in and find out why, by the next morning, my son still hadn’t showered and was continuing to be so obstinate. My son didn’t go into the reason for his behavior with Doug and, instead, turned around in a huff to do as we both had asked. Shower, check. Problem solved? Well, not quite.

We got back on the road, my son behind us, and headed to our next stop. I felt bad about the broken air conditioner but assumed we would take the car to a mechanic as soon as we reached Michigan at the end of the week. Driving without an air conditioner was uncomfortable for sure, but we still had a handful of stops on our itinerary, keeping the time in between them manageable.

But when we arrived at our next destination, Yellowstone National Park, my son was hardly excited to go sightseeing. Instead, he appeared visibly disturbed. It was so unlike him, which prompted me to question him again why.

“Mom,” he began, “ I really want to turn back and drive home.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It made absolutely no sense. For the weeks leading up to our trip, he had been excited about beginning his next chapter.

I could feel myself starting to panic, which I can sometimes do. It’s also what often prompts me to nag and harass more. Thinking back to the previous day, I recognized I had done just that when he didn’t want to shower. Except he wasn’t a little boy anymore, a fact I was struggling to come to terms with.

“You want to go home? But why?” I asked, trying to control the tension in my voice.

It was a smart move, my attempt at speaking to him in an adult-like manner. Or, rather, speaking to him as another adult instead of a child because he returned the favor.

“I know you and Doug planned this trip for a while, but I’m really freaked out that I won’t have the air conditioner fixed by the time school starts. I think it would be better if I just bring the car home and fly to Michigan myself.”

I looked at my son in shock. I never imagined what I perceived as an annoyance would cause him so much stress. As we continued to chat, he confessed how he was more nervous than he had let on about starting college. The inconvenience and pressure of having to contend with an unexpected and large repair in a strange place without his stepdad and me was a lot for his 18-year-old brain to manage. I listened intently as he expressed in a calm manner all of his concerns.

The funny thing is, after our conversation, I knew for sure that if my son had to handle such a situation on his own, he would be able to. And it wasn’t because he knew a lot about cars. No. It was because, in the face of a perceived crisis, my teenager was able to pinpoint what was bothering him, reflect on it long enough so that he could calm himself, and then communicate to me in a mature way why he felt the way he did.

I was in awe. I was also calmer than I had been in months. And instead of pressuring him to stick to the plan, I asked him what he wanted to do.

His suggestion was to shorten the trip by limiting our stops, so we could get to Michigan sooner. That way, he’d have some buffer time before the first day of class to get his car fixed. It made sense to me. The three of us then decided where our next few stops would be. He looked relieved and was back to his happy self. So were Doug and I.

When we reached Michigan, we found a local mechanic and left the car to be repaired. I knew my engineer-to-be, with his technical aptitude, would be able to pay us back one day, perhaps flying Doug and me to Mars on a rocket he helped design. We took him back to school, where we unpacked and set up his dorm room. Then the three of us went to pick up the car.

Before long, it was time to say our goodbyes. We hugged and got into our vehicles to begin our journeys, each of us driving away separately. But taking comfort in the fact we got to our respective destinations together.