Dropping my son off at college and driving away was harder than 24 hours of labor with an epidural that didn’t take, and lots of pushing, culminating in a messy C-section. I’m not kidding. At least that time, he came home with me. I’ve never sent a kid off to college before, and I couldn’t wait for his first weekend back at home.
I dove headfirst into obsessive and irrational homecoming preparations. I scrubbed his room and bathroom, and laundered his sheets and towels with extra fragrant softeners. In the back of my mind, I knew he either wouldn’t notice, or hate the allergy-inducing scents, but I needed to feel like I was controlling something (and my younger daughter already warned me not to focus all my energy on her). I even shopped for his favorite foods, vaguely acknowledging that he would likely sleep through breakfast and lunch. I stopped myself before ordering a “welcome home” balloon bouquet, realizing that he’s an 18-year-old boy, and that my behavior would not only freak him out, but his sister as well.
Facing the problem is the beginning of recovery, I told myself. But I wasn’t ready to face, admit, or deal with anything. I was still stuck in the denial stage of loss. I continued to prep like crazy until my son texted me on the ride home to let me know that he’d be going out later that night with some high school friends who were also coming home for the weekend. My husband was away on business and not scheduled to return until much later that night, and my daughter was already out for the night. I was home alone, staring in disbelief at my phone. What does he mean by “having a quick bite and going out?!” Do I look like a restaurant? Didn’t he know I had food and clean sheets and that I’m a basket case?!
The only rational thing I did in the weeks since dropping him off at school was not responding to that text on impulse. In a fog, I dialed my teenage-savvy, straight-shooting, and supportive friend, Jodi, who comes equipped with an extensive background in psychology. She was unfazed by my son’s plans to go out that night and warned me that his first visit home could be precedent setting.
“Wanting to see his friends is not a reflection on his lack of love for you. It’s normal,” she assured me. And even though I’ve started to hate the word “normal,” which everyone is using lately to dismiss my feelings, it suddenly made so much sense. I appreciated her even more for refraining from using terms such as “neurotic” and “helicoptering.” Why state the obvious?
As it turns out, our first visit home was one of our best family weekends ever, yet it could’ve been a disaster. Here are some Monday-morning-quarterbacking tips for maximizing your home-from-college weekends together:
1. Don’t hover. Even if you’re a natural hoverer, back off. You spent years getting your kids ready to soar and be on their own. They’re doing what you always hoped they would, and apparently they can still fold the laundry, use the microwave, and drive a car without assistance.
2. Don’t plan for perfection. Your family wasn’t perfect before your kid left for school. Rest assured that nothing has changed. No matter how much siblings may miss each other, they still get on each other’s nerves. They will bicker at the dinner table, fall into old patterns, and life will pretty much instantly revert back to what always was your “normal.”
3. Set new rules if necessary. If you want to do the extra laundry, do it. If you don’t, state your expectations. It’s all new, so now’s the time to lay the groundwork for this new phase of family life.
4. It’s not all about you. Your child is coming HOME—whatever that means for him or her. “Home” for my son is sleeping in on weekends, seeing his friends, spending time alone in his room, running errands, and playing with the dog.”Home” is not snuggling with me on the couch with a hot cup of tea to chat for hours about his new life. “Home” for him is a spontaneous talk that suddenly lasts two hours—not some contrived melodrama that I composed in the first days of missing him so badly.
5. Don’t be mad at your spouse for handling himself reasonably. When I told my husband that my son had plans other than spending every living breathing moment with us, he responded with, “Sounds great.” I was appalled. What’s so great? I was astounded when my husband pulled out his cellphone to check for an email he was waiting for. Didn’t he know the crown prince was home and needed our full attention?! But he was just being his normal dad self.
I’m grateful my needy compulsions took center stage in my head—instead of in reality—allowing us a delightful and “normal” time together. And I’m learning to let go and trust in the power of our family. After all, we’ve trained for this for 18 years…