We hadn’t expected to see our college freshman until Thanksgiving, but she decided to come home over Columbus Day Weekend. The whole campus was evidently hung-over from Homecoming, and everyone was going home.
She got herself a ride and I started changing my weekend plans. As it was her very first time home, I knew this was not a weekend where I could be busy with my own stuff. I needed to make time to focus on her, to sit and listen, and give her my undivided attention
So I added her favorite foods to my grocery list. I invited her grandparents over for a big Sunday dinner. I cleared out her room of the items that were now being stored there. I put fresh sheets on her bed, and made sure her car had a full tank of gas.
My College Daughter Has Changed
The first hint that something was different came when my husband met her two hours away, where her rideshare had ended. Since she would’ve been travelling most the day and it would be getting late, I had implored him to be on time. I was sure she would want to get home immediately to see friends. I was surprised when they decided to eat at the roadside diner where they met, and when their meal ended up lasting two hours. She had a lot to share, and the girl who never missed a high school party wanted to share it with her dad.
Once home, with the rest of us fast asleep, she took the car keys and headed out. Instead of going to a party though, she went to have a sleepover with two of her best childhood friends. When she arrived home in the morning, we talked about the schedule for the day. She explained that she had a paper to write for her law class, and she planned to meet friends for lunch. A guy-friend who was also home from school was having people over that night (a small party). She wasn’t sure she wanted to go.
The evidence of change was mounting. I hadn’t noticed it in the busy chaos of Family Weekend a few weeks earlier. I was curious about this slightly new person, a guest in her own home for the very first time. “I just wanna be with you guys,” she said. Waves of shock passed over me as I digested yet another indicator. The party girl was opting out? To be with her family? I tried to conceal my surprise, and not jinx my good fortune.
She ended up cancelling her lunch plans and buckling down at the dining room table to write her paper. Every hour or so, she would look up and tell me what she was writing about. Her knowledge on the subject matter was impressive, but it was the passion with which she talked about the issues that really dazzled me. I found myself envious of this girl who was so engaged, with such exciting opportunities before her.
Six hours later, as the time for our dinner reservation neared, I asked her why she didn’t finish her paper tomorrow. “I’m trying to clear the whole Sunday for family time,” was her answer. Who was this? Had my formerly self-absorbed kid become sentimental?
When she was ready to go to dinner, I noted that her “going-out” look was also different. Her full-face makeup, a trend that was typical in our town, had been replaced with a more natural, “barely-there” effect. I liked the softer style, and again silently celebrated another positive development.
After a delicious dinner, she really did opt to end up on the couch with us. She wanted to watch reruns of our favorite family shows, the ones she had missed since she’d been gone. When she went to bed, she took the family dog with her, telling us how she couldn’t wait to cuddle with her.
She was up on Sunday morning before I was, something unheard of in the past. She went to the gym to do her prescribed workout (she is a college athlete) and I made note of how self-governed she had become. She put in another hour adding citations to her paper, before she submitted it electronically and turned her full attention to the family.
The grandparents arrived early so that we could all engage in our traditional apple-pie-baking contest. My daughter entertained with stories about fraternity parties, dorm pranks and other campus high-jinx. She told details about some very interesting people she had met and befriended, explaining where they came from, what their family make-up was, their areas of study and their interests. She clearly enjoyed the diversity of the students on campus, and took pleasure in meeting people who were different from her and what she was used to.
After dinner she wanted us to get the firepit going. She grabbed the ukulele and she and her sister started a sing-along. Before she went to college, we had to bribe her to spend time with the family. Now we looked like a scene out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
In the morning we scrambled around, gathering items she needed for school. We had a two-hour drive to get her back to her rideshare. It was a trip full of more discoveries about this new version of my daughter. She played classic and folk-rock instead of the mix of rap, pop and hip-hop that I had come to dread. The conversation flowed like never before.
She talked about being self-reliant. “Mom, I hate to sound selfish, but at school, I do whatever I want every minute of the day. When you asked me about my schedule for this weekend, I realized that I am accountable to no one there. Except for weekends, my day goes by so fast. From 8 am until I hit the sheets, it’s like a blink of an eye. There is so much to do, and if I don’t do it, it’s not getting done.”
I told her that I am so glad she is away at school because college is such a unique time in a person’s life. You get to be an independent adult, but yet you are still taken care of in so many ways. She agreed wholeheartedly.
I felt the now-familiar heart-ache as they drove away, but I reflected on the visit with a smile. Granted, this whole “hanging out with the family” thing could just have been her way of detoxing before going back to campus, but something about it seemed genuine.
She is certainly not a high school kid anymore, and we need to adjust our parenting accordingly. She can take care of herself now. No longer will we lecture her, and she may not even need rules when she comes home. As long as her behavior doesn’t negatively affect anyone in the household, she will have the freedom to make her own decisions, just as she does at school.
Freshman year of college is a transformative time for our kids, but also for us. As they develop and change we must adjust to them becoming adults. We need to take on a different role in their lives, one that is more equal and less authoritative. The time for discipline has passed. Now is the time to take pride in the maturity they are acquiring, and continue the process of letting go.
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Doug Adriane Heine lives in Northeastern Pennsylvania with her husband, three daughters and lab mix. She is an adoption social worker for children in foster care. Her writing has garnered four Keystone Press Awards from the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association. She is passionate about helping children, doing as much yoga as possible, and sharing cool experiences with her girls.