Between the exuberant social media posts detailing college acceptances in the spring and the tearful ones as parents drop their freshmen off in the fall, it’s clear that the transition to parenting college kids is a doozy. Some say it is the biggest parenting challenge they’ve assumed so far.
What of the families whose kids stay home after high school, though? Whether they have decided to take a gap year (or several), live at home while attending college, or move right into a full-time job, having an adult child stay home after college presents its own challenges.
I know. I am right there, deep into the second year of my eldest daughter attending community college in preparation for transferring to a four-year university.
A recent rocky start to this new fall semester and even newer version of our relationship led me to toss a spade of frantic texts to my much younger cousin, begging her for advice. “When you were living at home during college,” I queried, a pained expression on my face as I typed, “What did you need most from your parents?”
I confess that her one-word answer shook me a bit: “Space!”
I have not been giving my daughter space. That is for sure. Somewhere in the recesses of my mom brain, I’ve known that is likely what she needs. I also fully understand that had she gone off to college, I would have no choice. She lives in my house, though. I see her every day and she tells me everything, whether I want to hear it or not. Her books and laundry remain strewn about the house and her bills fill our in-box. Therefore, I haven’t quite been able to retract the parenting net that provided a little peace of mind for all of us during her early teen years.
After finding out from my cousin what she’d needed during college, I asked her mom, Carla, how she’d managed to provide such space without compromising her own parenting chops. “Sometimes you really have to treat them like they are out of town guests,” Carla explained. She was careful to add, “It’s really hard because you are used to asking questions.”
I tried it for a few days. My daughter, the same one who recently admonished my face for being “too judgy” when she tells me about her day, seemed annoyed that I wasn’t asking her about her day anymore. So I compromised. “Tell me what you want me to know about your day,” I asked cheerfully. She saw right through me, but went ahead and tossed me a bone anyway. It’s working for us — for now.
The truth is that I wish my daughter could go off to college. I wish she could experience the joys and trials of living in a communal space with total strangers. I wish she could make the inevitable mistakes of early adulthood and then revel in the triumph of solving them without her usual parenting cushion. Those adventures form a person and I fear my proximity to her during this transition to adulthood might defer that growth.
Further, I recognize that it is entirely too stressful to hear about all these mistakes while she is making them. I think parents deserve the joy of learning about a grown child’s mistakes once they are in the past and the child has learned from them.
I asked Carla how to handle situations my daughter relays that might concern me. She suggested I ask myself if I disagree with the situation because it’s not a choice I would make or because it could hurt my daughter forever. It’s a great question for me to keep asking myself, as so many of my mom instincts are to gauge her choices against mine. But I’m not parenting a toddler here. I’m not dealing with whether or not my child is ready to ride a tricycle.
Carla advised, “If it’s to her detriment, then I would step in and say, ‘Let’s look at this picture — what are you learning from this?’ If she feels she needs more guidelines and boundaries, reassure her: ‘We trust you. We think that we’ve raised you to the point where you can do this.’ And then ask, ‘What do you expect of this relationship? What do you expect from us?’”
We haven’t had to use this particular gem yet, but I know it’s there when I need it (and given the times I blew it while in early adulthood, I’m sure the time will come when I’ll need it). Carla assures me that possessing an arsenal of verbal tools is vital to maintaining a healthy relationship with a newly minted adult living at home. “Don’t think about it after the fact; plan before,” she suggests.
With that, when my daughter recently shared a part of her day that irked me, I took a long pause and considered Carla’s advice. My daughter’s choice was not at all destructive or dangerous. It just wasn’t a choice I’d make. If a guest in my home had made the same choice, I’d let it slide right off my back. I turned my “too judgy” face away from her, busied myself cleaning a dirty pan, and waited for her to choose her next topic.
“I need a new pair of jeans,” she chirped as she scoured the fridge for a snack. I’m not going to lie. I mentally patted myself on the back for maintaining silence. And by the next day, I’d forgotten what she’d told me in the first place, making me especially grateful that I’d listened to Carla’s advice.
Paula Fitzgibbons is a former Lutheran pastor who hung up her collar when she became a mom to three kids in 11 months. They’re all teens now, one in college — so besides never sleeping ever, she is a freelance writer and a Communications Director in The Episcopal Church. She also plays with yarn and hikes the gorgeous cliffs overlooking California beaches. Her work can be found in The New York Times, New York Magazine, and Scary Mommy. You can find her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter as well.