Mom’s Advice to Freshman Son: “Stop Pretending to Be Happy”

When Lucas went away for his first year of college, I had a lot of friends and family asking, “How does Lucas like college?” Their faces always looked so hopeful, expecting good news.

young man in woods
Our son was miserable in his first semester of college.

I knew they wanted me to say, “Great!” But it wasn’t great. I was getting almost daily calls from my overachiever about how miserable he was. He was under the impression that this would be the greatest time of his life. He had worked hard at school, joined clubs, and played sports, all with the expectation that he would get into a good college and have the best time ever!

He and his roommate would be best friends, with no parents or little brothers around. College was going to be amazing. But it wasn’t. Had he worked so hard for this? Had he moved three thousand miles away? How could the college life he had envisioned be so different from what was?

My son admitted that he hated college

Lucas had been in college for about a month when he started calling me. He had called me before, but the conversations were always, “I’ll be late for dinner. Can I go to Jonathan’s house?” It was information, it wasn’t a conversation.

But now he was calling from college and just wanted to talk. It was about the second or third conversation when he finally said, “Mom, I hate it here. I eat by myself. My roommate is never home. The people are different. It’s cold.”

“I thought you said you liked cold?” I answered. “It’s only October.”

“I changed my mind,” was his response. “What are you doing?” he wanted to know.

“Ah…watching Ben play t-ball.”

“I wish I was there. I could help teach.”

“Lucas, I thought you didn’t want to go to Berkeley because you didn’t want to be invited to your brothers’ birthdays.”

“Yeah,” he said. “I can’t believe I could be in Berkeley right now.”

“Do you want to transfer to Berkeley?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I’m just so lonely.

He needed me! He was one of the most capable people I had ever known and asked for my help. I was heartbroken. I was inspired. It was necessary. I went right to work, collecting items for the perfect care packages. I called his grandparents, his aunts, and his friend’s parents. “Lucas needs us,” I said. And they were there. And we were sending love and gifts and words of encouragement.

I developed a rapport with my son that autumn. We got in the habit of talking, sometimes, he just wanted to listen. I would talk about what I was making for dinner or who I was transporting to this or that event. But sometimes, he would talk about his concerns.

“Mom, I hate having to pretend to be happy.”

My response was, “Stop pretending to be happy. Be unhappy, and then move on with your day. What if everyone at school is pretending to be happy? It’s no wonder you can’t find anyone who is real. You aren’t being true. Your unhappiness is just seeping out of you.”

I talked and talked and talked. I told Lucas that everyone has this period in their lives and that he’s just having it now. I told him that when I had spent a year in Australia, I felt like I was on Mars, and I woke up every morning with zero expectations because I was on Mars. I told him to try and do the same thing. “Don’t wake up and think it’s supposed to be a certain way, because you’re on Mars, and you just have to take things for what they are. Meet them as they are presented to you.”

I pulled out all the stops. I didn’t know if anything I told him would resonate, so I kept trying different anecdotes. “College is not supposed to be an extension of high school. You are supposed to get out of your comfort zone. Most of your learning won’t come from the classroom. You go to the gym.” I told him. “If it doesn’t hurt, you’re not getting stronger, and it is the same with going to college. The only way to grow and stretch and be better than you were is for it to hurt a little, or maybe a lot.”

It was a very tough semester, but it was a wonderful semester. He learned the value of his home and his family. He learned that annoying younger brothers brought their own amusements and joy. He was humbled, he was kind, he was appreciative, and he was grateful. Sigh, lessons learned.

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About Trina Dresden

Trina Dresden is the mother of four boys, aged 20, 17, 14, and 5, she has inadvertently become the "Go To Girl" in every new circle of friends.  Professionally an attorney and real estate agent, she has decided to combine her knowledge and relay it through stories.

Read more posts by Trina

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