While the cat climbed in and out of his unzipped bags, and I handed him folded t-shirts, our son Sam finished packing for his return to college. At his request, he would travel back alone to start his junior year.
Around the edges of our casual conversation lurked my unasked questions. As the opportunity to voice them began to shrink, I set them free.
“So, when you arrive at the dorm, who will already be there?”
“A couple of people.”
“I don’t know, don’t worry about it.”
“Seriously, don’t worry about it.”
“So, what will you do for dinner tonight?”
“Probably go out.”
“What if nobody’s there yet?”
“I’ll go out and come back and then they’ll be there.”
“What if they changed the locks and you have to get a key and—
“I’ll figure it out.”
“Any idea yet what you’re doing for fall break?”
“No idea. I’ll probably go to New York with my friends.”
He looked at me.
“You know I’m going to call you as soon as I’m there, right? I always do.”
He moved the cat, zipped the suitcases and took some bags of road food. Then he opened his arms, gave me a giant hug and a big smile and said, “Seriously, don’t worry about it.” And then, he was gone.
I let it all sit for about an hour, then asked myself the rest of my questions.
What kind of a parent, I wondered, sends their college person off without even knowing what he’ll have for dinner? If he’ll be alone? What if he’s delayed and arrives too late to find a place to eat or buy groceries? What if his classmates were wrong about their arrival date and he’s alone on the campus? For a long time?
And so on.
Never mind the confidence he’d shown in his ability to cope if he had to, adapt where he needed to, or his belief, tried and true, that everything would be okay. Never mind all of that. Who would make his bed?
The kind of parent who does this, I answered myself, is not struggling with letting go as much as being let go of.
About halfway through Sam’s high school career, stressed and busy and fed up with go-nowhere discussions about grades and due dates, we went out for lunch to “figure it out.”
“Let me manage my responsibilities,” he said. “The minute I’m not managing my responsibilities, go ahead and start asking me to show you my papers and tests.”
“Okay,” I said.
Enter college prep deadlines. The looming tasks, the high stakes, the feeling that everything still waited and that nothing would get done. Add my college person’s now maddening response to it all: “Don’t worry about it,” and we were bound to clash.
Clash we did. In the fall of his senior year, our deal notwithstanding, I said something to Sam that started with “Did you,” and he responded with something like “don’t worry about it,” and I said something about being very worried about it, and also the only one in the house who really understood what the stakes were.
I didn’t like my own voice when I said it, but I liked it less when he accused me of going back on my promise to trust him until he proved I couldn’t. Technically, he was right. His balance in the trust bank was hefty, still.
After that, I considered my choices: respect this need for independence, and, the hard part – let him face his own consequences – or, lose him to the skills he would develop to humor me. Either choice would require one of us to change.
I chose the former. I would not be the over-parent, occupying more of a role in my college person’s life than he wanted me to. I would be the hands-off parent, willing to relinquish much of the role that made me feel like a parent at all.
He would make his bed, that’s who.
All parenting can be tricky, but what complicates hands-off parenting is that we’re often at odds with ourselves. We honor our college person’s wish to make his own decisions and face his own music. But straight-armed and faraway, when we miss our college person, there is no end to the wrong outcomes of hands-off parenting we can imagine.
Which have probably, already befallen our college person.
Which we saw coming.
Which we didn’t prevent.
And now, look.
Would it have killed us to make a tiny suggestion?
We needed to let them face those consequences?
I should have made his bed.
After Sam left for his junior year, I began to hear from him more often than in other years. Calls came in the late afternoon as he walked between buildings and I wrapped up my writing day. Sometimes he told me about a professor. Sometimes I told him a funny story from his childhood. We began to talk like good friends who like to hear each other’s voices.
On the first night of his fall break, I thought about Sam in New York with his friends, something that would have made me unsettled only a year before. But at ease tonight, I tended a special stew my husband had asked me to make and thought about weekend plans. The door opened and from the mud room, I heard his voice apologizing, “I’m sorry I’m late,” he said, “but this guy wanted to come home and surprise his mother.”
Sam walked around the corner, arms open, smile as big as the last time I saw it.
He will graduate in the spring, There will be another wave of transitions to new “firsts,” first job, first apartment, first bank account I know nothing about. But I know this: with a tried and true belief that everything’s going to be okay, he’ll figure it out.
I don’t worry about that.
Susan Bonifant is an essayist, novelist and mother of four grown children who writes about life after the last college drop off. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, Huffington Post, The Concord Monitor and PurpleClover.com.
Susan lives with her husband and writer-cat, Gus, in Hopkinton, NH. Visit her blog, “Worth Mentioning,” at atticview.blogspot.com.