one parent perspective on freshman year of college

Jack shared his freshman year of college realities. You can read it here. Now it’s my turn. Overall, this post is less a chronology than it is some truths I’m learning to apply as the parent of a now-adult son. That said, we’ll start with Jack’s freshman year in a nutshell for the sake of context. The following “CliffsNotes” summarize the year in a few short paragraphs. Then, I’ll share a few key takeaways which I’m working really hard to practice.

Freshman Year of College Realities: CliffsNotes

Here goes…

Move-In Day full of promise and rainbows, followed by first two weeks of pink cloud optimism and naivete. Roommate is awesome, and they’ll be best friends. Scratch that. Major roommate issues followed by roommate moving out abruptly by mid-October, leaving half his stuff there for the rest of the semester. Lonely first semester full of fits and false starts to get plugged in. Acquaintances all around, but few real friends. Boy meets girl. Girl leaves. No biggie. Boy meets another girl. Girl leaves. Boy heartbroken for 6.5 hours.

Classes are harder than anticipated, or at least it’s a struggle to manage time and work load with newfound lack of structure in a day. One class dropped to avoid failing and crappy GPA. Frantic calls home. Nothing is right with the world. Late night conversations followed by sleepless nights by Mom. Call by bleary-eyed, stressed-out Mom to Boy next day reveals Boy slept just fine. “What are you so worried about, Mom?” Boy asks. “Everything is right with the world!” Mom slaps forehead. Boy says he’s out of money. Mom says, “Okay I’ll send you money.” Dad says, “Nope. Get a job.” Boy gets job. Job is great. Job sucks. Boy loses job. Boy decides to do without job and instead focus on school. College red tape and bureaucracy often makes Boy and Mom pull their hair out in fistfuls. Mom loses her sh*t with one of the school’s unassuming administrative assistants over the phone. Mom feels bad and thinks about calling back to apologize, but doesn’t. Mom realizes she is now “that Mom” even though she said she NEVER-NO-NOT-EVER would be. Vows to do better next time.

Boy comes home for winter break. Pink clouds, twinkly lights and holiday rainbows last for one week, followed by a mix of storm clouds and 60% chance of major frustration with a cool front of distant and irritable moving in from the west. By week four of winter break, everybody is looking forward to semester two. Semester two is better, but not great for the first two months. A few acquaintances become true friends. Another class is dropped. GPA and study habits begin to stabilize. Boy loves school today. No wait, Boy hates school. It’s getting better. No it’s not. Yes it is. No it’s not. By mid-March, college life is “pretty decent” for the most part. And that’s about all we can ask for on any given day. Over time, Boy demonstrates amazing resilience and maturity, gains skills in money management, study skills, living on the cheap and making friends. When frantic late-night phone call comes, Mom learns to say, “That must be hard. What are you going to do about that?” Instead of “I’ll fix it.” Mom learns to ask, “What are three good things that happened this week?” versus “How was your week?” Mom goes back to sleep and sleeps soundly, for tonight. End of Chapter 1. To be continued, ad nauseum.

Got all that? Or at least the jist? Good, so here’s what I think I learned…

FOMO for Parents: The Struggle is Real

social media fomo parent perspectives college realities

Socially-induced performance pressure and social media doesn’t just plague our youth. It can eat away at us as we deal with freshman year of college realities, or any aspect of life. From over-the-top graduation extravaganzas to “last-summer-at-home bucket lists a la Pinterest” to tear-filled Move-In Days and photos of students being elected most likely to succeed (#proudmom #bestchildintheworld) after their first two weeks on campus or finding their BFF right in their dorm room, the opportunities to feel inadequate are endless. It’s Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) and for me, it requires vigilant effort to ward off, including frequent social media breaks and surrounding myself with real, authentic friends and trusted confidantes who aren’t afraid of my Ugly and aren’t afraid to show me theirs either.

A wise man I knew used to say, “Comparison Kills Contentment.” Yup. I had to (still have to, daily) make an intentional decision to Live My Own Life, Be Present and Be Grateful versus squandering the gifts right before me by focusing on how they compare to the gifts of others. For me, this will take a lifetime of practice, but it is life changing.

Honestly? I felt no small amount of (dare I say) relief once Jack went off to college. High school wasn’t great for him, and his high school years were no picnic for me either. I was ready to embrace a quieter, more peaceful (although lonelier) home life without my older son at home. I miss him when he’s away, sure. Lots. But it’s a whole new adventure to experience how our family of three-at-home evolves, and I’m super excited for all Jack had ahead of him. This is OUR individual experience. This is OUR story. It’s not going to look like other people’s stories, and that’s okay.

Accepting That Their Character is More Important Than Their Comfort

I’ve heard it said that God is more interested in your Character than in your Comfort. I am learning to embrace this truth not only for myself when dealing with freshman year of college realities and parenting young adult children, but for my kids, too.

When my kids are sad, it’s terribly inconvenient for me. Their discomfort is uncomfortable for me. I want relief RIGHT NOW, for them and for me. So much so, that I have sometimes short-changed the lesson Jack (or my high-school junior, Joe) is supposed to learn, in order to make us both feel better right now. It feels like a fix, but often it’s just kicking that can down the road to be tripped over another day. A lesson unlearned is destined to be repeated. I’m getting better at letting Jack sit with his discomfort (self-inflicted or otherwise), and trust that God has allowed him to be (or placed him) right there for some reason, whether or not I understand why (or ever will).

I have struggled all my parenting life with emotional codependence. “I’m only as happy as my saddest child”. (don’t know who coined that phrase, but it rings true for me). It is only in recent years that I’ve made progress in separating how my day is going from how my children’s days are going. I’m learning to let them be on their path, however rocky, without cutting my own knees on the stones to save them from the pain. This is called detaching with love. “I love you. I’m sad that you’re hurting. I don’t judge you for the consequences you’re dealing with, or the pain that you’re in. Nor do I have the ability to walk this path for you or remove you from it. It’s your life, and you’re going to have to navigate this journey on your own. I’ll be here to listen, to love you unconditionally and to share my experience and counsel, but this is your journey.”

Whatever is going on in Jack’s life (or Joe’s life), good or bad, is exactly where he’s supposed to be right now, for some reason I may not understand. I’ve had to remind myself to take the long view. Today’s heartache or disappointment may be tomorrow’s averted disaster. Today’s failure may be tomorrow’s changed path. Practicing this for my kids is HARD. But God has given me the gift of a few instances where I have personally experienced this truth. Each time I do, it strengthens my resolve. Better yet, Jack and Joe are experiencing this truth for themselves in their own lives.

Dealing With Freshman Year of College Realities Means Adjusting To A Different Parenting Rhythm

When Jack wasn’t here every day, parenting felt sporadic. The first few days and weeks, I texted or called more often than I should have. I worked to break this habit until we settled into a rhythm of a weekly call plus brief, near-daily texts. By about month three, I developed the ability to go several days without contacting Jack at all, which was good for him and for me. This still doesn’t feel natural to me, but it does feel necessary. Both of us seem to function better and more independently when I don’t know every little thing that’s going on. When I was in college, we relied on infrequent letters and even-more-infrequent care packages, plus a weekly phone call home (always on Sunday nights when it was only 7 cents per minute), and I managed to survive. Cell phones hadn’t been invented yet, nor had email or the Internet. Just because I CAN contact Jack easily and cheaply on a frequent basis doesn’t mean that I should.

Throughout freshman year, Jack continued to need me sporadically, unpredictably and (he felt) urgently, usually when things went wrong. I had to avoid the emotional, fix-it mode tailspin this could cause. I tried, not always successfully, to play the role of consultant versus fixer. I made a conscious effort to remember that I am now dealing with an adult son. I would tell myself to relate to him as adult-to-adult. For me, this means asking questions versus giving instructions. “Wow, that sounds frustrating. What do you plan to do about that?” It means empathizing, “Yeah, I’ve done that, too and wow, it sucks. I remember feeling really sad when that happened, but then I realized that…”  It means asking permission to offer suggestions, “Would you like to hear some things that used to work for me in that situation?”

For me, the biggest challenge is knowing when to keep my distance and when it’s my duty as a parent to step in and advocate. I have zero advice to give on this topic, since I still get it wrong all the time (IE, the apology I still owe to that administrative assistant at the University of Memphis). But I’m making progress and learning each day. I now know that there are VERY FEW times once Jack moves out and heads to college when I should intervene. Consult and advise from a distance one adult to another, yes. Step in and take over, NOPE. I’ve tried it both ways, and I’m learning the hard way that letting Jack live his own life, stumbles and all, works better in the long run for both him and for me.

The other rhythm adjustment that is still challenging is volleying between having Jack home to having him move away, to having him back home for breaks, especially longer breaks like winter break and now, his first summer home. For this, I’m trying to stick to the truth that I cannot control other people, places or circumstances. I can only control myself. I can set boundaries that work for me and enforce them. This, too, is a practice that will take a lifetime to apply and improve, but I’m making progress.

Being Kind and Gentle With Myself and My Adult Son

As I reflect on freshman year of college realities from a parent’s perspective, I’m learning to remember that I’ve never been through this stage of parenting before, and that I will make mistakes. Jack’s never been a college freshman (now sophomore), and he will make mistakes. I’m trying to be kind and gentle with myself when I mess up. And I’m (hopefully) getting better at being kind and gentle with Jack when he messes up. I’m also trying to be much better at recognizing, acknowledging and praising progress in us both, and in our whole family.

I have to fight my innate tendency to see only the long path ahead, versus looking back and remembering how far we’ve come. I see evidence all over the place, every single day, of all that Jack’s learning, conquering, improving, doing really, really well! I try to remember to tell him so.

I’m also learning that the more I can view Life as an adventure versus a mission, the saner I will be.

Now onto the next chapter: Sophomore Year of College for Jack and Junior Year of High School for Joe. Let the games begin!