How My Relationship With My Son Is Changing As He Prepares To Leave For College

by Jeannine Bergers Everett

I sat on the back porch swing and watched fireflies chit-chat while the bluetooth case of my iPhone occasionally flashed hello in return. At least I’m hoping it was a hello. I’d hate to think I’d confused them. My Kindle screen had gone dark several minutes ago. My son played basketball in the driveway, and I searched for subtext in each thump. My husband said the child hadn’t left the dinner table angry. That made one of us.

It was a stupid argument. His room is a yawning pit of entropy. I’m expecting those British ladies with swabs to show up any minute now to detail how many types of bacteria are festering in his carpet. So I asked him to clean it. He could have said “Sure,” ending the conversation. He wouldn’t have even had to mean it. I’m smart enough to know that an affirmative response only means he heard words coming out of my mouth. As far as listening to them and heeding them, I know there is no guarantee.

He said, “I’m busy.” I suppose it’s true at some level. He hasn’t been up before noon all week, and he disappears every afternoon to play basketball, then hangs out with his friends. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for housework. Informing me that he was too busy to clean his room, however, felt like a kick of sand in the face. My son has been extremely resistant of late. Not that he ever does as I ask, but he’s usually not so hostile about it. I’m usually not so hostile in return, either. He gets around to things eventually. Today was not one of those more reasonable days.

“Maybe I’m too busy to give you the keys to my car until your room is clean.” Take that, you little shit.

With my response, dinner was over and he was gone. I told my husband that it was about respect. I am not his maid. He’s not above cleaning his room, and he can’t just expect me to do everything for him—what a load of hooey.

The ground my son and I stand on is dividing, like one of those cartoons where the earthquake splits the earth in two sides with a deep crevasse between them. He is going away to college, and I don’t get to come along for the ride. I don’t even want to. That doesn’t make the change in the power structure of our family any easier to navigate.

I remember the summer before I went away to school was much the same. My mother and I argued. She complained I was never home, there was so much to do to get ready for school, and I was being snotty and disrespectful. I thought she was being controlling, stressing over details that I didn’t care about (I mean, do you really need to comparison-shop for a shower caddy?), and overreacting to my supposed overreactions.

I hate it when lessons I learn as a parent result in an apology for my own adolescent behavior. I’ll add this one to the ever-growing list. Come fall, I will be a mother without a child to mother, but for now, dammit, I’m still in charge. Who told him he was his own master? Oh wait. That would be me.

I find it ironic that after years of warning him that he’d have to take responsibility for his own stuff without my supervision, and now that he’s doing it, I don’t like it. It makes me feel…irrelevant. It doesn’t bother my husband so much. I guess there’s a reason they call them apron strings and not suspenders. He is more prepared to let go. He is also not the one who will have to don the bunny suit and clean the boy’s bedroom and bathroom after he leaves for college. Just because I’m realizing the argument isn’t about my son’s armpit of a domicile doesn’t suddenly make it clean.

As the day faded away, so did my anger—enough to let it go and move on. When I came in, my son was busy watching television. I could have cleaned my own bedroom. Instead, I sat down and watched along with him.

These next few weeks will be difficult, but I’ll make it a little easier by giving up the idea that I have control over anything, least of all my son. When the time comes for him to leave, we can fall into the crevasse, or we can use the time we have to build a bridge. As long as his bedroom stays on his side, we’re good.