The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lessons from my college son, while we were home together

The author and her son (David H. Slater)

Three years ago, my husband and I said a teary goodbye to our son and began life as empty nesters. We never imagined as he set off for college that he’d be winging his way home because of a pandemic. Now that he’s returned to campus after 10 months with us, I’m realizing what a gift it’s been to spend this unexpected time together.

When my son came back last spring, he continued his classes remotely, once again at his bedroom desk with his faithful study buddy (our Westie, Mac) by his side. We fell into familiar rhythms — meals together, walks around the city, long talks — but with one big difference: My son is now an adult. He’s also part of the politically aware generation born between the mid-1990s and early 2000s that includes environmental activist Greta Thunberg and gun control advocate Emma González.

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In the past months, I’ve seen how my son’s activism has bloomed since he left home, during a gap year in Senegal and then two years at university. The ease I enjoyed with him before he left is still there, but our dinner conversations have revolved around covid-19′s inequality, racial violence, representation in politics and the media, paths forward for the new administration, my son’s census outreach and voter registration work on campus.

I’ve also seen a shift in our everyday interactions. On a sunny afternoon, we met at Starbucks, usually one of our favorite things to do. But when I ordered an iced latte and asked my son what he wanted, he replied, “Nothing for me.” He preferred not to patronize megacompanies like Starbucks and would get something at the independently owned cafe across the street. He reminded me not to use my straw.

At the supermarket one evening, I put chicken into the cart for me and my husband, to go with the lentils I was making since my son rarely eats meat. “Did you know it takes over a hundred gallons of water to produce one chicken breast?” my son asked. Vegetarianism is so much better, he explained, because it reduces our water footprint and greenhouse gases. I put the chicken back.

When the checkout clerk asked if we’d like plastic or paper, I realized we’d forgotten to bring our reusable bag. “Paper,” I replied, as my son said, “No, thanks. We’re good.” We exited into the street clutching our groceries, trying not to drop milk, yogurt, broccoli, bread.

Because of the pandemic, my son’s plan to study in Ghana was canceled, so I asked him if he’d like to work as my assistant. Busy with Zoom meetings, virtual town halls, and phone banking for a progressive Democratic candidate (an underdog who ended up winning), he decided to take the job so he could make money to donate to the candidates he supports.

My friends and I share stories about this generation of “kids”: the arguments over defunding the police, how much is appropriate to share on social media, whether it’s okay to use the term “politically correct.” Children of the 60s and 70s, my friends and I consider ourselves open-minded and in tune with the times but, interacting with our offspring, we wonder how true this is.

I used to think I remembered what it was like to be my son’s age, but in many ways, I can’t, because he’s entering adulthood with a radically different awareness. Thanks to the Internet and social media, young adults are hyper-informed, always connected, and conscious of the power they have to reach out globally. In the post-9/11 world they’ve grown up in, an era of increasing gun violence, threats to the environment, hunger and homelessness, they know they can do something to make a difference. They’re not satisfied to simply hope for social revolution — they want to lead it.

If my son had urged me not to buy chicken when he was young, I probably would have bought it anyway. But during his time at home with us, situations like what happened at the supermarket have felt like opportunities to connect. They’re a chance for me to learn more about what matters now to my son and why, and this has brought us closer together.

My son’s university invited the students back for the spring semester, so he packed his bags and left home again. On the cold, rainy day we saw him off at the airport, I braced myself for the sadness I felt the first time we said goodbye. But instead, I felt gratitude for the months we’ve had together.

Just as these young adults are coming into their own, their lives have been put on pause. But their idealism hasn’t. I think about how proud my Tibetan grandparents would be of their great-grandson. Devout Buddhists, they believed in doing all the good you can in all the ways you can. Getting to know my son as the young man he’s become — and being inspired by his hope and commitment during this tumultuous time — is a great privilege. One day when our discussion at dinner grew heated, I told him I don’t want our relationship to be adversarial. He said, “We’re not against each other! We’re side by side.”

Ann Tashi Slater recently finished a memoir about reconnecting with her Tibetan roots. Her work has been published by The New Yorker, The Paris Review, the New York Times, Catapult, and Guernica, among others, and she is a contributing editor at Tricycle. Visit her at www.anntashislater.com.

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More reading:

For parents of some young adults, the pandemic offered another chance at connection

Some parents and teens found renewed closeness during the pandemic

The pandemic changed everything about family life. These are the parts parents want to keep

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