When Parents are Divorced: How to Make Parents Weekend Work

A week before my significant other and I arrived on campus for Parents Weekend, I called my younger son to find out which night we could take him to dinner. Four weeks later, I looked around my freshman’s cramped dorm room at him, his dad, his dad’s fiancee, and my boyfriend sitting inches from each other like strangers trapped in an elevator.

As a divorced mom, I realized this was not going to be the Parents Weekend I had expected. I also realized claustrophobia is real.

How to navigate Parents Weekend when the parents are divorced

My boyfriend and I landed on a Friday afternoon, drove to the house we were renting for the weekend and texted my son. I was surprised he invited us to meet him at a bar and grill near campus, as I hadn’t expected to see him until the next day. By the time we arrived, his dad and his dad’s fiancée were already mingling among the mixed crowd of students and parents spilling onto the blocked-off street outside the packed hole-in-the-wall burger place.

While I chatted with my ex-husband’s fiancée, my boyfriend caught up with my ex. They had always been cordial to one another, but within minutes they transformed into long-lost fraternity brothers. While they clinked their beer bottles, I clenched my teeth. I was pleased to see them get along so well, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit uneasy that I was the only thing they had in common. I halfway expected them to invent a secret handshake or create a song cementing their friendship, which is ridiculous, as both of them hate to sing.

[How to Have the Best Parent’s Weekend]

As my conversation with my son’s soon-to-be stepmom reached that awkward “I’ve run out of things to say to you point,” my son guided us to his dorm room to wait for a friend who would meet us in an hour. While we strolled the five short blocks to campus, the two middle-aged guy pals continued to bond and chuckle at each other’s jokes. I assumed they had finalized plans to buy matching t-shirts.

I ignored the brofest behind me and slipped my arm around my son. Unlike when I started college, the “freshman 15” had bypassed him. He gave me an overview of his classes and I filled him in on the antics of the mischievous kitty he left behind months before. Although it was a short walk, I snuck in a few side hugs along the way. Being an empty nester has been tougher than I thought and the cat has never shown interest in giving or receiving hugs.

We showed our IDs at the front desk and rode the creaky elevator to my son’s dorm room. After attempting to leap onto his bunk bed and wondering why my upper body strength equaled that of a toddler, I finally landed next to my son. My boyfriend and my ex’s fiancee leaned against the bed across from us and my ex plopped onto my son’s desk chair. I was glad we were acting more like old friends instead of potential guests waiting to appear on an upcoming Jerry Springer episode, although my son’s desk chair resembled the ones guests often hurl across the stage.

After an hour of discussing how much college had changed from “our day” to now, my son let us know his friend was waiting downstairs and asked my boyfriend and me if we wanted to join them for dinner. My first thought was to say no. I knew I was acting selfish, but I didn’t want to feel obligated to share dinner the following night with my ex and his fiancee—the fair thing to do. After all, we had infringed on their night with my son. I did the right thing and told a white lie: we already had plans. (I’ve never been good at lying, a trait I’m grateful my sons also acquired.) My skeptical and intuitive son gave me a look that was somewhere between What’s wrong? and You’re making this into a bigger deal than it is (he knows me well). I agreed to go.

[More on Bringing Lofty Expectations of Family Weekend Down to Earth here.]

The six of us piled into an Uber XL and, on the way to dinner, my son’s friend commented about how comfortable everyone seemed to be with one another. My son smiled and said, “Yeah, it’s pretty cool.”

And it was.

My ex and I made a promise when we separated that we would put our sons’ needs and feelings first. Some couples make every effort to fulfill that promise, yet life and misunderstandings often get in the way. Yet ten years after our divorce, my former husband and I continue to put any differences aside. We keep our thoughts about each other to ourselves, especially after I mentioned to my son that maybe it was time for his dad to update his wardrobe and ditch the cargo pants. “There’s nothing wrong with his clothes!” he responded and gave me a look as if I had accused his dad of being an ax murderer instead of a prime candidate for the show What Not to Wear.

We spent a few hours at dinner, joking and sharing stories as if we spent every Friday night together. My son sat across from me and a few times throughout the night I spotted him taking in the scene of four unlikely dinner companions sharing a meal and a few cocktails.

The next night my boyfriend and I took my son to dinner. I had scores of questions I wanted to ask him: Did he bring enough warm clothes to school? Was his roommate nice? Was dorm food as disgusting as when I was in school? Instead, I played it cool, and by cool, I mean I only asked him five out of the sixty-five questions I had written on 3×5 cards and tucked into my purse. Even before I asked one question, it was obvious by looking at him that he was happy, confident and comfortable at his new school.

We finished dinner and drove my son to his dorm—we were ready to go to sleep while he and his roommates were eager to go out. As I stood on my tiptoes and hugged my over six-foot-tall baby of the family goodbye, he thanked us for coming in town for the weekend.

As I watched my son walk to his dorm, I felt relieved he had spent time with both of his parents without any pressure, guilt, or drama. At that point I knew Parents Weekend had not turned out the way I had expected.

It was much better.


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Lisa Kanarek is a freelance writer, the author of five books about working from home, and writes the blog Forgot to Tell You. Her work has been featured on various sites including Grown and Flown, Bon Bon Break, Sammiches & Psych Meds, Ten to Twenty Parenting, and MockMom. She is the mother of two sons in college and has lived in Texas half her life, but may be breaking state law by not owning a pair of cowboy boots.

About Lisa Kanarek

Lisa Kanarek is a freelance writer, the proud mother of two college-aged sons, and the author of five books about working from home. She writes the blog Forgot to Tell You. Follow along on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

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