When my daughter went off to college over a year ago, I worried about normal things – would she make friends, would she hold her own academically, would she do her laundry, eat balanced meals, get enough sleep, get involved in campus life?
She was off to my alma mater, a campus I knew better than my hometown, and a place where fond memories lurked around every corner. I had spent an amazing four years there but I wasn’t naïve.
In addition to the friendships and late night talks I also remembered the parties and the drunken jocks, how easy it is for a student of modest means to feel out-of-place at a school where so many students come from significant wealth.
But I was confident that she would find her tribe and find her way…just as I had. And she did, ending Freshman year beautifully and starting Sophomore year poised for success with a job as an RA, a plum role in the winter musical, and a hard-won spot in the college honors program.
It should be smooth sailing from here, I thought.
It is difficult to parent during uncertain times
But then, as it does, the real world intrudes.
And unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past several years, the world right now feels uncertain at best, downright terrifying at worst. I’d boasted to friends about how welcoming the college had become to LGBT students and alums, after all it was even printing our wedding announcements in the alumni magazine — a huge move for a Catholic school –and then a gay student was assaulted on campus in an apparent hate crime.
I’d comforted myself by how much stronger and aware young women are today than they were in my day –and then an Instagram page sprung up with anonymous accounts of sexual assault on campus.
Reading its stories of traumatized victims, unresponsive administrators, and unrepentant assailants made me nauseous and numb. I reassured myself she was safe in the bubble of her campus community– and then she told me about incidents of indecent exposure in the school library.
I had been impressed by the security measures at every dorm entrance and then she had to go through active shooter training as an RA, an exercise that made me go cold all over. She called me later that night and said, “It’ll be ok, right Mom? I’ll never have to use this stuff, right Mom?”
I wanted to say “of course not” oh, how I wanted to say no. But I couldn’t. Not in this world where no place feels safe—not grocery stores, or movie theaters, or concerts, or bars, or synagogues, or churches, or schools…. Or college campuses.
I suddenly had days when I couldn’t breathe from worry.
This was the big stuff. This wasn’t mean girl drama or getting a bad grade on a test or not being asked to the school dance. These things flew at her and (by way of her) at me one after the other at a dizzying speed. And I felt powerless to fix it. Even saying “it will be ok, you are safe there” was met with “I don’t know if I’m safe anywhere.” Her sleep suffered, her stress level blossomed. And my worry blossomed right along with it.
The things I’d worried about for the past 19 years seemed almost quaint in comparison — touching a hot stove, falling off the play structure, breaking or losing her glasses, passing her driver’s test. This worry seemed impossible to even name as encompassed the very world she was living in now, the world waiting for her after college, and the impossibility of keeping her safe.
Finally, Thanksgiving was upon us and I was eager to have her home for what I assumed would be a long stretch of her sleeping, doing coursework, and emerging to eat while I did her laundry. In other words, the perfect college break.
Her first morning home we went out to breakfast and, faced with a long line, stood awkwardly crammed in the entrance way making ineffectual attempts at small talk. I grew irritated with her. She grew irritated with me. This was not the gentle, nurturing mother-daughter moment I had envisioned.
Finally, our table was ready and we sat down over our coffees and I heard my late mother’s voice in my ear saying “just let her talk, you do the listening.” And she did. And she kept talking. And I listened.
As she talked, about a recent campus summit to address some of these pressing issues, what she saw as its shortfalls, its positives and the way to move forward. I started to really notice how different her voice sounded – deeper, more assured, gone was the teenage girl tendency to speak in questions, replaced by a woman speaking declaratively and confidently. I notice how she sat—taller, straighter – and how her words were words of action and forward progress – not words of despair. And I smiled.
In the midst of this very serious talk about very serious issues, I smiled at the woman sitting across from me who had replaced my little girl. We can’t know what life has in store for us and I’m a mom, I’ll always worry about her safety, it’s what I do (her looming trip to Europe is the cause of my current irrational panics).
But maybe, just maybe, I didn’t have to worry about the ability of the young woman of action (who was so different from the girl I had sent to school 15 months earlier) to figure out how to navigate this scary new reality.
Did she, or anyone have all the answers? No, of course not. But she was finding her voice and it was powerful. And I knew I had to what our generation needs to do more of – get out of the way, listen, trust, and let her and her friends show us how to make the world safe.