I kinda miss the days the boys were in elementary school. About 15 minutes before the dismissal bell, mothers would start gathering on the blacktop and gabbing. We talked about little stuff (like how 3rd grade math was so crazy hard) and big stuff. We had so many insecurities as parents; we were trying to “do it right,” but we were constantly second-guessing ourselves. Was making our kid copy spelling words five times draconian? Was using the iPad as a babysitter here and there? The bully who poked our kid in the back of the neck with a dagger-pointed pencil — was it wrong for a 37-year-old mother to fantasize about beating him up? The thing that drew me to our gaggle was this: none of us knew what the hell we were doing, and we weren’t afraid to admit it.
The only parents I had a distaste for were the rigid ones. They were the ones who had their household rules written in stone. They were the ones who said things like “My parents spanked me, and I turned out all right.” They were hardcore about things like their daughters not dating until they were 16 — which left me with questions like, why are we talking about the love life of a kid who still has her baby teeth? Why are we talking at all?
A couple of these moms breached my mom-posse, and I wish we had ousted them and their know-it-all-ness with some polite and definitive tactic. Instead, they infiltrated and always made me feel unsure about my unsureness. Why didn’t I institute an 8 p.m. lights-out policy? Why wasn’t I expecting an hour of after-school reading before snack? Why didn’t I have a time-out chair?
It took lots of like-minded-mother therapy for me to understand some basic truths: (1) One size parenting doesn’t fit all; (2) Overly-self-assured mothers didn’t know more than I did about raising kids than I did — they were just convinced they did (and, as we all know, thinking you are an expert is not the same as being an expert); (3) I was never going to know whether my parenting strategies were 100% wrong or right. I was going to have to go with my gut (and the input of consigliere moms)–and do my best.
I look around and see those cast-iron parents still at work. Their exhortations have morphed over time (I don’t think any of them still have time-out chairs, but who really knows?), but they haven’t become any more flexible. They had all the answers a dozen-plus years ago, so why wouldn’t they now? And of all their meaningless and arbitrary mandates these days, there is one I absolutely abhor: their inelastic belief that you drop a kid off at college and you don’t see them again until Thanksgiving break.
I know the argument: forcing freshmen to sever ties with home will help them acclimate to their new surroundings and the reality of their, well, new reality. It is an attempt not to indulge homesickness — because I guess homesickness is not an appropriate thing to feel when you’ve had the same cozy comfort of familiarity for the last 18 years.
The practice of abandoning a kid at college, regardless of whether they are equipped, seems just as chancy as throwing a kid in the pool and expecting them to swim. Some do fine and they learn to tread water; some go under; and some end up floating, but will always remember the trauma of being tossed over the edge and left to fend for themselves. So, if the kid dog-paddles to the edge of the pool, do the ends justify the means? Aren’t there other ways, more individualized ways, to arrive at the same ends?
It’s insanity to think every kid is going to thrive if you dump them at college. I was one of the ones who did. I leapt out of that station wagon, grabbed whatever detritus I had packed, threw a couple air kisses, and trotted to my new dorm or the nearest happy hour. I was a kid who, seven minutes into college life, was dreading going home and being cloistered during fall break. My roommate, on the other hand, was left by her parents in our cinder-blocky 10 x 10 space, and she crumbled. She was a kid who spent first semester lonesome and self-isolated, just wanting to see her cat a couple times. She never got over the fact (her fact) that her parents had deserted her. She never forgave them. We represent the extremes, of course — but think of all the grey areas in between our ends of the spectrum.
It is hard to predict the buttressing that suits a kid who goes off on their first extended adventure. My son has been gone five weeks and, pummeled with care packages and offers of free meals (he is about an hour away and is our firstborn…), he has been pretty inconsistent about his wishes. They range from “Leave me alone, you are killing me” or “Send more cookies. Now.” His needs are mercurial and we don’t always meet them, and that’s okay. This is the only thing I expected when he left home.
I am not sure, day to day, whether we are smothering him or being too successful at keeping our distance. Our job, though, is not to anticipate every bump, zig-zag, or glitch. We need to wait for him to cue and/or confuse us. Because, contrary to the belief of some, there is no sacred rule that says there is only one way to navigate this college journey, even from the get-go. The best we can do is admit we don’t have definite answers … and go from there.