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The other nine months: When your college student returns home for the first time

Students, students everywhere soon to return home for the summer. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Very soon, after being away for almost nine months, college freshmen everywhere will come home for the summer. If the reunion goes like ours did, there will be a happy night of dinner and staying up late and reminiscing. Then, the now-sophomore will grab the keys and say “Okay, heading out. See you in the morning.” It will be close to midnight when this happens.

There may be many reactions to this, but one of them probably won’t be: “Wait a second. Where do you think you’re going at this hour?” Because, if nothing changes our kids like the first year in college, nothing changes our auto-parenting like living with them again in the summer that follows.

I caught glimpses of those changes during the holidays when they were home for the first time since the drop off.  Something was different. I wasn’t quite sure what “it” was, but I knew “it” wasn’t there before. The college-aged children were wistful.  They hugged more. They smiled easily. They seemed peaceful. They kept me company when I was cooking, and came into the living room when I was writing to say, “So, what’s up?”

Eventually, I realized the “it” was not behavior, but maturity. Not maturity in the wash-their-own-clothes and make-their-own-meals sense. Maturity in that, whether they had chosen to perform beyond their own expectations while away, or screw up magnificently, they had lived through their decisions. Some of those decisions, I imagined, rewarded them with a feeling of competence. Others, I imagined, I would hear about over some Thanksgiving dinner many years from now.

It was an awkward little dance we did with all of our children at the start of that first summer back home. We didn’t want to enforce curfews or nag them to eat better or tell them when to get up. We were not those parents anymore. Now we were more like the aunt and uncle they were always partial to, encouraging and supportive, but more a witness to their decision making than a participant in it.

Maturity, like any kind of growth, is most strikingly apparent after a separation. In our children, we observed classic indicators: They didn’t need rules now — they were self-governed — but they did want advice. They looked at us when we were speaking. They disagreed with tact, even humor. They respected our space and our changed lives. If they answered to themselves now, it was not to flaunt their independence; it was because they’d learned a thing or two about the cause and effect of choices.

Most special were the unique and fleeting moments in reorientation to our children when I glimpsed them as others might, who they’d become, and what they’d achieved under their own influence. Our son, once a social senior who never missed a party or met a deadline he couldn’t extend, made it a goal to appear on the dean’s list each semester, and then did it.  “Don’t get me wrong,” he said, “I party like everyone else on the weekend. But Monday through Friday, this is my job.” Then, our daughter, who, after seeing friends take on the burden of loans and struggle to pay for shampoo and pizza told me she would not waste a day of a funded education, and did not.

There were glimpses of  who they might be in the future, as well.  On his last summer night at home, our son spent a good portion of it on the phone comforting a small boy he’d mentored over the summer at a local Boys and Girls Club. When the truth of our son’s departure sank in, the boy cried inconsolably until staff finally called on our son to assist.

“Hey, buddy,” I heard him say, “I’m coming back at Thanksgiving. You know how fast the summer went, right? That’s how long it will be. It’s going to fly by!” And then, “No, buddy, I promise. I swear to God, I will not forget you.”

One day, I thought, there may be another small child in our son’s life who needs that comfort, and will have it.

If we’re open to it, a certain equality can be reached with our children after they return from college, when all of us have stretched our lives, found our freedom, and pursued new projects.  We saw what they had managed to accomplish without someone clicking on the lights, opening the shade and saying “time to get up.”  And, they saw our excitement over new passions which had nothing to do with parenting.

“Update your blog,” said my daughter.

“Where are you on the novel?” asked my son.

Parents who have spent a near year apart from their college freshman may find it a little dizzying to reorient to life together. But as the normalcy returns, may their thoughts now and then turn to that other nine months, long ago, which passed equally fast and in the end, left us just as dazzled by the new person who came home to live with us.

Susan Bonifant is an essayist and novelist from Hopkinton, NH, who blogs about life after the last college drop off at You can follow her on Twitter @SusanBonifant