Family Traditions: What Happens When Your Kid’s in College?

Family traditions. By the time your kids are college aged, you have a lot of them. Traditions tied to birthdays, holidays, beginnings and endings. Traditions that have provided a comfortable framework for your kids’ lives and have played a significant part in your family memories. Traditions that, when one (or more) of your kids is away at college, suddenly have to be redefined.

Letter to Santa

As the mother of a college sophomore, you might think I figured out tricks to fool the cruel distance barrier that threatened to ruin many of our traditions over the past year, and you’d be partially correct. First day of school photo with her little sister? I had my college girl take a first day selfie, text it to me, and had my younger daughter hold my iPad up by her face so I could get both of them in one shot.

First day of school cupcakes? Thanks to Hostess and UPS, she had enough to share with her friends. The Beatles Birthday song we’ve blasted every year on her birthday since she was a toddler that she’s danced to while riding around the house on her father’s shoulders? Played it in the hotel room when we visited the week before her birthday (and yes, her father carried her around the room on his shoulders.)

From FaceTiming during birthday dinners to sending familiar items from home that we’ve used to mark special events, I’ve been able to successfully keep a small sense of our family’s customs intact for her—and me—even when she is far away.

[Related: How to help a college kid celebrate a birthday when far from home.]

But as for the emotional part of the family traditions—the parts that you can’t send in a box or capture with a selfie—those I haven’t quite figured out how to manage. This time of year is especially tough. Sure, I can figure out loopholes for many of the traditional, physical tasks that mark the beginning of the holiday season (easy in theory, damn near impossible to execute in the three days after Thanksgiving, but we do it) but the hole her absence leaves when she’s back at school and we’re here, carrying on without her, is gaping.

“Let’s make those peanut butter cookies with the Hershey’s Kisses in them,” my 14-year-old said the other night. “Yes! Great id—,” I started, but then was slammed with a wave of guilt. “We shouldn’t,” I said. “Your sister isn’t here and they’re her favorites.” Knowing she won’t be home until December 23rd gave me pause, though. That’s a long time to go without those peanut butter cookies, guilt or no guilt.

Did we make the cookies? Don’t be silly; of course we made the cookies (Peanut Butter Blossoms—1; Mom Guilt—10). And my college daughter will love getting a box of them this week maybe even more than if she’d made them here, but that’s not the point. The point is this; it’s not necessarily the actual task in the tradition that is the hardest without your college child; it’s the survivor’s guilt you feel carrying on without them and maybe even tougher, the sadness you feel knowing how much they are missing being part of the family traditions.

My daughter called the other night. “What are you doing?” she asked. Her 14-year-old sister and I were sitting on the sofa in front of the Christmas tree, listening to Christmas music and working quietly on our laptops, fireplace going and the college girl’s beloved cat curled up between us. It was like a freaking Hallmark movie.

“Um, laundry,” I said. “Then it’s off to scoop the cat box.” I couldn’t bear to let her know what she was missing, especially since I know how much she loves Christmas—and especially, our house at Christmas.

“What are you doing?” I asked, hoping she’d tell me that she was about to go sledding or ice-skating or ride in a friggin’ horse-drawn sleigh while singing Christmas carols. “Homework,” she replied, and then sighed. “I wish I could do it at home in front of the tree.” “You should get a little tree!” I said, happy that I had a solution to my guilt/her problem.

“No space in this tiny dorm room, but we made one by taping lights to the wall, so I guess I could just sit in front of that,” she said. “Hold on for a sec, will you?” I asked, then put the phone down and ran to the kitchen and crammed six Peanut Butter Blossoms in my mouth at once to feed my sadness … and my guilt.

Family traditions are wonderful—and happily, will last forever—but it’s time to make some new ones.

Sending her the gifts she’d usually find in the Advent calendar, saving the making of the special sugar cookies until the night of the 23rd, not telling her when her sister, father and I do Christmas things without her, lying about how many cookies we’ve already made (and eaten)—there are many ways I find myself coping with not having her around (and the fact that I’ve bought her one or five more presents than she needs this year may or may not be one of those mechanisms).

But whether it’s the holidays, a birthday, or another milestone that your family has a tradition for, their absence is staggering, isn’t it? We knew we’d miss them when they flew away, but what we might not have been prepared for was how much that ache would be multiplied when we’d have to carry on doing the things that have defined our families without them around.

[Related: How to say goodbye to your college kid, again, and again, and again.]

So what’s the answer, you ask? I’m on year two, and I still don’t have it. But here’s what I do have: A happy girl in a place she loves working hard to fulfill her dreams. And here’s what I know: Despite the definition of the word, family traditions don’t have to be static. And like it or not, the time has come for some of them to change, evolve, and be redefined. The memories we’ve made over the past 20 years are wonderful—and happily, will last forever—but it’s time to make some new ones.

And if that means we get double the Peanut Butter Blossoms in this house now, I’m game.


About Michelle Newman

Michelle Newman is one of the hosts and producers of The Pop Culture Preservation Society, a podcast dedicated to preserving the pop culture nuggets of our GenX childhoods, from Barry Manilow and the Bee Gees to Battle of The Network Stars. She’s spent the past nine years writing for publications like Grown & Flown, Entertainment Weekly, and The Girlfriend, as well as for her (now silent) blog, You’re My Favorite Today. A recent empty nester, Michelle finds immense joy connecting with others through the memories of their 70s childhoods. Follow the Pop Culture Preservation Society on Instagram and listen wherever you get podcasts!

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