Two months ago, I wrote about sending our daughter to college for her freshman year during COVID. What I didn’t know at the time was that the pandemic was not the only challenge our family would face. What initially felt like a weird science experiment, turned into an unimaginable, cruel and inhumane test.
Four weeks after dropping my daughter off at college, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The diagnosis came as my daughter was feeling crappy and sick, though as it would turn out, not with COVID. Within days we also learned she was exposed to someone who had tested positive with COVID.
My daughter was sent into quarantine 48 hours after learning I had breast cancer
Less than 48 hours after learning that her mother had breast cancer, she was sent into quarantine, completely alone, for 10 days with no human interaction, except for the repair guy who came to fix her refrigerator. My initial positive thought of “well at least she is at school with her friends to distract her” disappeared as quickly as a lightning bolt.
I spent the first week of my diagnosis focused on her needs in quarantine, both logistically and mentally. As any parent knows, it’s much easier to focus on the needs of kids than our own. We were in constant communication as she progressed through the contract tracing and testing process. After being transported to her quarantine hotel room through back entrances and service elevators, she called me in tears. It was a lot to take in. She was scared and alone.
I immediately asked her if she wanted to come home, though honestly, I didn’t even know if that was possible. I didn’t know if the school would allow it, or if my diagnosis would make that prohibitive since I was having surgery in a few short weeks. Without hesitation she replied, “No.” Several of her friends and her roommate were also quarantined. They were just doors away from each other. While they could not leave their rooms, at all, for 10 days, thanks to Facetime they could remain somewhat social with each other. There was clearly a sense that though physically alone, they were all going through this together.
I was proud of the way my daughter handled quarantine
I have never been prouder of my daughter than I was during those 10 days. COVID has and continues wreaked havoc on her life, denying her the ceremonial rites of passage we all took for granted as we graduated high school and started college. At the same time, cancer turned her life upside down overnight, while hundreds of miles away from home. Weeks later we would learn a member of our extended family, a close cousin, would also be facing their own health battle.
If you had told me I would have to go 3 months without seeing my girls, even under the best of circumstances, which this was not, I would have said you were crazy. But there isn’t much about 2020 that isn’t crazy.
Over these past few months I have had a lot of time to consider if college during COVID was a bad idea. If I knew then what I know now, would I have done things differently? Honestly, I don’t know. It has been hard for all of us.
Four things I’ve learned about college during Covid
1. Our kids are COVID strong.
I wrote in my last piece that none of us really know what our 18 years old selves would do under similar circumstances. I feel confident my 18-year-old self would have fallen apart and run home as soon my parents opened that door. And there would have been no shame in doing that. We all have different needs.
But it’s clear that despite its challenges COVID has equipped our kids with a unique kind of resilience. They have experienced what it feels like to not be able to go to school, to not see your friends, and for some, to watch loved one’s lives be deeply impacted by COVID in unimaginable ways. And it has made them stronger.
We’ve always known intellectually that kids are resilient, but now they have been tested and have proven it to themselves. Now they know they can do hard things, something most of us don’t learn till later in life. This is a tough way to learn, and I certainly wouldn’t have wished it for them, but it will serve them well.
2. Our college age kids do not want us to solve their problems.
I have received many calls from my daughter upset, stressed, and overwhelmed. These calls were probably the most normal part of her freshman year. My immediate instinct was to go into problem solving mode. While I normally consider this trait a strength, (I did once fix our dishwasher when nobody else could), when it comes to parenting college kids, it is not. Within minutes of these conversations starting, they would quickly end, and we would both be left frustrated and alone in our tears.
It was hard to be away from each other. It was so hard to be away from each other until this extraordinary combination of circumstances. But in the course of dealing with my own pain and anxiety, I realized more than ever that what I needed, was exactly what she needed: Just someone to vent to and who she knew could “be” with her through it.
I have now learned when she calls me in a moment of sadness, fear or frustration, to ask her if she would like some help in dealing with this, or if she is just venting. Most of the time she replies she is just venting. This is exactly the response we should be getting from our college kids and we need to honor it, even during COVID.
3. It has never been more important for us as parents to lead by example.
From masking up, to socially distancing to following the advice and recommendations of health care experts. When my daughters’ school begged kids not to travel, most listened. Some did not. When they begged parents not to visit, most listened. Some did not.
When there were outbreaks of COVID at her school it was almost always because of the few who did not listen to the advice. How we as adults behave in these times will largely determine the behavior of our kids. My daughter asked a couple of times over the semester if she could come home just for the weekend. I said no. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done. But it was one of the ONLY ways I could protect her, myself and others – because this is not just about protecting ourselves, it is about protecting the communities we are a part of.
4. In dealing with my illness, the way I react largely determines how my kids will react.
We told them immediately with as much information as we could because I needed them to believe me when I said, I was going to be fine. This is the truth. We cannot expect our teenage kids to believe us when we need them to if we keep secrets, or worse, lie to them. I know I must be honest with my feelings so they will be honest with theirs.
I know if they see me be positive (even if I have moments of weakness) that one day, when they find themselves facing some adversity (or even their present-day adversity) they will be able to do the same. Our kids are watching us. They may roll their eyes at what we say, but they most certainly internalize what we do.
Three days ago, my daughter returned home. I am proud to report they almost made it to Thanksgiving. They made it much longer than anyone imagined and it is a testament to the school’s thoughtful planning and execution, and the student’s compliance to established, yet difficult protocols.
Now, back together, my family gets to figure out how to navigate chemo treatment during a pandemic. As I write this, the day before I start chemo, my daughter received word that one of her friends, who she saw briefly the day she left school, tested positive for COVID. And thus, we begin a new science experiment the likes of which I could have never imagined.
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