“Don’t,” I tell myself as my eyes well. Let your face reveal that this is right, that your daughter will be fine in college. My biggest worry besides rapists and shootings and drugged solo cups is she’ll be lonely. Tina is a little shy, an introvert, not one to reach out to people.
And so for months before she left I gave her my long list of ambivalent reassurances, my usual stark truth-telling balanced by optimism. “You’re going to like college, but probably not right away. It’s this new strange world, but fun. You’re going to live in a small space with a total stranger. I know you’re only 20 minutes away but you won’t see us or the dog every day which will feel weird. I guarantee you’ll be homesick for a while but it will go away.”
When I said good-bye outside her dorm Tina suddenly looks smaller, but her voice sounds steady and reassuring, “I’ll be fine Mom.”
[More on How to Tell Your College Daughter Goodbye.]
On the drive home I picture her sitting all alone on her bed covered with starchy teal and gray throw pillows, her roommate off somewhere making friends.
Earlier that day while we unpacked boxes, Tina’s roommate and her mother walked in and introduced themselves. After a few polite exchanges, we unpacked in silence until someone knocked on the door. Two girls told us they were Lisa’s high school friends, freshman who lived across campus. My husband and I flashed disappointed glances.
Tina and Lisa found each other on an online roommate matching site and on almost every question they hit it off. Music, personality, Dexter, night owls who love a chilly room. We assumed the girls were in this first year together, new to making friends at college so likely to cling to each other for a while.
The first few weeks Tina hung out with Lisa and her friends but after a month she told me she felt like the third wheel, and that eventually Lisa stopped inviting her anyway.
“It’s not that we don’t get along, mom. She’s considerate but she doesn’t really talk to me. The other day I said something to her about some show. I knew she heard but she ignored me. We’re obviously just going to be roommates and not friends which is fine.”
And just like that, I didn’t like Lisa.
Suddenly I remembered when Tina’s elementary school friends didn’t sit with her on the bus throughout middle school. I was half out of my mind but Tina shrugged it off. She never seemed to take drifting friendships too personally, instead she saw the ebb and flow of relationships as the natural course of things. And if she was hurt my overreaction quickly put her feelings into perspective. “Oh my God Mom it’s okay” she’d tell me. “We stopped being friends a while ago and yes, someone sat with me on the bus.”
“Why don’t you call Elise and get together?” I suggested. “You were friends in high school and you hung out at freshman orientation. I have no idea why haven’t you gotten together.”
“I don’t know. She lives all the way across campus. We just haven’t.”
“Are you meeting people in class?” I asked.
“Yeah but I only see them a couple of times a week and it’s not like we have much time to talk.”
Nothing was working. My daughter was lonely. She had to be. Her dad and I knew what not being lonely should look like in college and Tina wasn’t doing any of it.
“You need to find a way to make that huge campus smaller,” we both told her. “I know you text and see your friends from high school and you have that good friend Quinn you met a couple of years ago in that online group. But you need to meet kids on campus. Join a club. Any club, animals, graphic design, the environment. Pick one.”
Tina promises me she’ll join a club and after a few minutes, I back off.
I can hear myself and I’m disgusted but I can’t stop. I need to get this right or my child will suffer. Ever since middle school my husband and I tried to push Tina into our version of a balanced social life once we heard her say no more times than yes to her friends.
“I’m fine. You should be happy I have Quinn. That I have someone I can relate to. You should be happy I’m not going to that off-campus 18 and up bar like Lisa does all the time. She doesn’t drink but lots of underage kids do drink there. That party scene isn’t my thing.”
I am happy Tina’s never been a party girl. God knows her dad and I were big party people during college and we would die if she even came close to doing what we did.
On move-in day Tina, her dad and I navigate the parking lot crammed with campus volunteers, stunned parents and nervous students balancing mini-fridges on dollies. By nighttime when we return from dinner there’s no sign of life in her building. No open doors, no laughter or music. Not a single resident aid.
All year I’d pictured how this was supposed to go, how my only child would leave the nest and settle into her new world.
Before we left the RA would introduce herself, smile warmly, answer all my questions, and invite Tina to the community room where the girls would pair off and do awkward ice breakers. But the only RA we met was a typed welcome note taped to a decorated door. “Hi my name is Cat. These are my hours. I love dogs, Starbucks and too many French fries. Oh and in case you need me, here’s my cell.” Smiley face.
Tina’s been at college for more than a semester now and she promises me she’s not lonely. She sees her high school friends. She texts Quinn. She talks to people in class.
I admire that even though she’s not brimming with confidence yet, she seems comfortable in her own skin and with her own company. My daughter is content to spend a little bit of time with a few close friends. So why do I push her to become my version of socially balanced?
She promises she’s eating, sleeping and careful when she walks back to her dorm at night. Her grades are excellent. “Well then leave her alone” my friends tell me. “She’s ok. She’ll find her way in her own time. You’ll make her think something’s wrong with her if you keep asking if she’s made friends.”
So now when she comes home I try not to ask. Instead I stare at her new college face and listen with sensitive ears as she tells me about each of her classes and what her roommate is up to. I analyze the changing tone in her voice and each time, I hear a new confidence.
Tina is a thousand times more self-loving and grounded than I was at her age. This is probably why I keep asking if she’s lonely; I’m projecting my 18-year-old unsettled feelings on to her. At 18 I was still emotionally damaged from childhood, anxious and terrified of every new situation. I didn’t enter college as my own best friend and I was always trying to fit into some group or some version of myself.
Sometimes I worry Tina will miss out on fun rites of passage that should be filled with just the right amount of campus activities and just the right amount of people. And yet Tina knows something about herself I learned later in life. She knows who she is and who she doesn’t need to be among five friends or 30,000 students.
During Christmas break my husband privately asked Tina how she was doing, “I’m fine Dad but it’s a process,” she said. And right away I worry “process” is code for “unhappy,” which is why she never gives me that explanation. I over think while my daughter likes and trusts herself in ways I never did at her age. She senses that as her life transitions into scary unknowns, in time she’ll adapt.
Tina insists on meeting people in small doses and with personalities of her own choosing. I admire that. And so now when she visits I try to listen to what she’s been telling me for years, that she’s not lonely, that she’s not miserable, that she prefers to move through the people-world in her own way and at her own pace which has always been, exactly right.
Laura Owens is a writer, blogger and essayist. Her focus is social commentary, psychology and wellness. You can find some of her work on Huffington Post, Parent.co, Lipstick and Politics, AKA Mom, Xojane, Psych Central and Whole Life Times. You can also find Laura on Twitter Facebook Pinterest and her blogs: Mind Over Matter(s) and Treelight.