When I went off to college in 1984, things were much different. Visiting multiple colleges before Decision Day wasn’t the norm. I went where my parents suggested without stepping foot on the campus before freshman orientation. Picking a roommate wasn’t complicated either. If you didn’t have someone in mind, there were no Facebook groups to help screen potential candidates. The school simply matched you with another student. And keeping in touch with family and friends was more difficult before cell phones. The only way I could make a call was with the wall-mounted rotary phone in my dorm room. No wonder I lost touch with most of my high school friends so quickly.
Despite generational differences, one thing that remains constant is that moving away from home to attend college is a test for students and parents alike. Some handle it better than others, and no two experiences are the same.
But the parallels between my freshman year almost forty years ago and my son’s freshman year that began this fall are uncanny. While I wouldn’t go as far as blaming karma for why I feel so neglected now that he’s gone, the thought has crossed my mind.
I remember calling home my first few weeks of college to update my parents about how I was doing. Initially, I’d report about my classes and share anecdotes about my professors. After I ran out of the things to say, my mom would ask a litany of questions. Was I making friends? Yes, lots of them. Was the food good? So-so. Did I need anything? Not yet, but I’d let her know.
As time passed, our conversations grew shorter. I had places to go and people to see, and making time for a call home became less of a priority. When we did connect, I could hear the disappointment in my mom’s voice as I’d hurry to hang up. She missed me, wished that we could talk more often, and wondered when I wanted to come home for a visit. I felt guilty for not letting my parents in on more of what I was doing. After all, they were paying for a good portion of my education. They’d skimped and saved since the time I was born to make sure I could attend college, and in return, I was only giving them a brief glimpse into my new life…at my convenience…and always filtering out the parts I didn’t want them to know about.
I had anticipated the lack of communication when my son left in August, so I suggested a regular weekly check-in. I’d be satisfied if he could just find time to call me every Sunday. But I quickly realized fall Sundays are for NFL football, and on a college campus that means hanging out with the guys (even during a global pandemic). Although it doesn’t take more than a few minutes to call home, I’d prefer not being squeezed in between games. Better to wait until he has something to talk about and when it’s convenient for him. Even if I’m left waiting longer than I’d like.
Being on the opposite end of this equation is challenging. I’m the one sitting home, waiting for an incoming text, or better yet, the phone to ring. I walk by his room and think about how it smelled when he was living there. I share the pit in my stomach with my husband who misses his golf buddy. I crave the sound of my son’s voice and long to hear about his new adventures. Is he making friends? Eating well? Does he need money for laundry? Is he even doing laundry? Your guess is as good as mine, and I’m regularly reminded of my own efforts to distance myself from family while I was away at college. As a parent, it’s what I had hoped for—watching my kids grow into their independence. I just never realized how hard it would be when they actually let go.
I’ve heard stories about freshmen being terribly homesick, pleading to come home after a few short weeks. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. I should be happy that he doesn’t call home all the time. That must mean he’s making the most of his college experience. Or does it? Maybe he’s not happy. Perhaps he’s sitting alone in his room every night, wondering what we’re doing and hoping I’d call. No chance. Not only have I tested that theory already—his phone goes right to voicemail—but I know my son. He’s pretty well-adjusted, thank goodness. I just wish he’d throw me a bone once in a while. Pick up the phone. Shoot me a text, or even an occasional goofy GIF. I miss him, the same way my parents must have missed me.
I’ve learned to resist calling my son every time I think of him. I’m only setting myself up for disappointment when I make the first move. If he does pick up, he’s usually on his way to class, hanging out with friends, or doing something else I once had the opportunity to do without being interrupted by my mom. I remember how bad I used to feel telling my roommate to make excuses for me when my mom called, just because I was getting ready for happy hour. I can only imagine how the sight of an incoming message from home would have interfered with my Friday night mojo. He doesn’t need me interfering with his fun, but what about my needs? Where do I fit in now?
The answer is clear, but harsh. This isn’t my time. It’s his. I had my turn in college and those years are some of the best of my life. I made lifelong friends, discovered my career path, and learned how to take care of myself. I didn’t intend to cast my parents aside as if they weren’t important, but it was only temporary. His college years will go fast, and he’ll come around again, just like I did.
For now, I’m counting the days until Thanksgiving weekend when he’ll be home. As soon as he walks through the door and dumps his stuff in his bedroom, I’ll need to remind myself that the night before Thanksgiving has traditionally been one of the biggest party nights of the year and the perfect time to reconnect with high school friends. I never missed it, why would he?
He’ll be out the door again in no time, but I’ll be there when he returns.