As our son packed for his freshman year at Carleton College, I asked, “How should we communicate once you get to school?” With all the technology available, from phone or text to video chats, I wondered not whether we would communicate, but how. I reminisced about my calls on the pay phone in the dorm hallway, and thought what a luxury parents have today with so many ways to stay in touch.
I was wrong.
At Carleton and other savvy colleges, administrators have perfected the art of ridding the campus of parents quickly. On that sunny September day, I received a two-word “bye Mom,” as my son raced away to participate in the Frisbee-throwing contest on the campus green. Shell-shocked parents were then whisked away to a subdued cocktail party, where shrimp on ice looked as lonely the parents nibbling them. When we departed, the campus was designedly empty and the freshmen had vanished. I drove away from campus, knowing my son was nearby, but in a larger sense, gone. Thank goodness he was only a text away, or so I thought!
Once home, I was satisfied with our son’s nurturing, intellectual environment, and I was determined to give him space to adjust. I mentally prepared for his departure all summer: I dutifully cased stores for extra-long twin sheets, had wisdom teeth pulled, and weaned myself from stalking his Facebook page. At his final pediatrician visit, the juxtaposition of his strapping 6’4’’ frame next to the same scale that first weighed his tiny newborn body helped me realize, visually, as well as emotionally, that it was time to let go. (My husband, on the other hand, had not the same preparation, and was nearly reduced to tears at seeing the Costco-sized peanut butter jar he used to make my son’s lunches!) In reality, our house was now quiet, our dinner conversations less lively. Something was missing, and we wanted to fill the void.
We waited until that first Sunday to call our son. We went online and pushed the video chat button, only to be met with silence. Knowing he might be out of his room, we texted that we were available to talk: we heard nothing. With all the inconvenience endured with our child tethered to his cell phone during high school, we thought it would finally work in our favor—but only if he chose to answer! Finally, at midnight, I sent a pitiful text, “Good night, dear. We love you.” He immediately replied, “Nite.” ‘At least he’s alive,’ I thought, ‘But why is he up so late?’ And so began communicating with our son from a distance.
Many freshman parents walk the delicate line between overbearing and out of touch. We also struggle with how our kids communicate. Their single-word texts, hash-tagged tweets, and Snapchats do little to help us ascertain their health, happiness, or study habits. And call me old-fashioned, but when I email, I still hope for a reply, and I feel put off when my text goes into cyberspace unanswered.
With the communication options available, I did not anticipate my relationship with my child would rely so heavily on monosyllabic text bytes. Perhaps knowing that we are so accessible made our son less apt to call, or maybe he just wanted to establish a precedent of independence on his own terms. Whatever the reason, it demanded that we step back and change course.
Halfway through our son’s first term, we began to develop a rhythm. We allowed him to initiate contact, and he usually did so on Sundays. I sent a few emails and hello texts each week without expecting replies. And I learned not to be off put by his silence, but to embrace what it means. By not involving us in every detail of life, our college freshman was telling us how well he was navigating this new, independent world without us. In time, as my son’s comfort level grew, my hope was that he would be more inclined to share. Until then, he knew we were there.
Our son actually had the foresight to tell us he didn’t think he would talk to us very often “at first.” One day, well into his first term on a beautiful autumn weekday, my phone rang. I was greeted by live video of my son, lying happily on his bed, looking handsome, well-fed, and cheerful: “Hi Mom, what-cha doing?”
Smiling, I said “hello” and thought to myself, “…and it isn’t even Sunday!”