The scheduled FaceTime call the night before my daughter’s first day of classes was an epic fail. Just a few days after we’d left her in her new dorm room, we were still trying to figure out the best ways to communicate with our college freshman. So far, there had been some texting but not a lot. “Do I get all three meals a day on the meal plan?” “Can I put dirty sneakers in the washer/dryer?”
After dialing her number, the initial maternal tug of “There she is!” was immediately dwarfed by her distracted, “Oh I forgot we were speaking.” Our one minute conversation included a matter of fact “you know I just saw you” and, although it was said with no tone or irritation, it was still a punch to the once pregnant gut.
I had thought my concerns after drop-off would fall more on safety and health issues—is my daughter getting enough vitamin C, is she walking from the library to the dorm at night with a friend? Or whether she was finding a healthy balance between fun and academics. But somehow, on the ride back to the airport, the lingering image of our goodbye group hug stayed with me, and unexpectedly, my focus shifted away from her and onto my own immediate and acute maternal need for contact.
But what would that contact look like? So far, it had seemed ours was a parent-child dance based on practicality rather than emotion, which left me wondering, in all the months leading up to and preparing for the college send-off, had I missed one of the more important conversations with my daughter: How would we communicate while she was away at school and how often?
Then came the impromptu phone call while she was walking to dinner with friends. “Everyone is calling their moms right now,” she said. “So…” I smiled. At least she was honest. But I’d take it. I’d take anything she was willing to give.
So much has changed since I sat on the floor of my own dorm room during my weekly call with my parents, twirling the plastic cord around my index finger as we chatted, the phone attached to the wall. With technology, social media and my daughter’s cell phone basically attached to her body, I had an expectation that things would be different. That she would routinely tell me where she was, who she was with, and when I could expect to hear from her again, just because it would be so easy for her to do.
And yet, it’s not as if we communicated like that during her high school years. She didn’t text me with updates on her 10-page English paper topic or whether she ate a chicken burrito or turkey sandwich for lunch. So what is this sudden need and expectation for more ongoing contact? Surely it’s because now she is there, and I am here. Distance from our offspring does strange things to parents.
“Oh, yeah, I can see whenever my daughter’s on the move and where she is on campus,” a dad recently told me at a mutual friend’s birthday celebration. “I’ve got that app, Find My Friends. It’s the best.” He explained how the app locates and tracks his daughter via GPS, so he knows her whereabouts at all times. She’s presumably agreed to this arrangement, though I wondered how she really felt about it. Or if either knows there’s an app parents can use to keep tabs on whether their kid is going to class.
I thought back to the woman sitting next to me on the flight home after drop-off, the one who knew her daughter was safe and sound back in her dorm room every night because she, too, had the Find My Friends app. The same mom who told me where my daughter might be that day after we’d left campus: “They’re all at a darty,” (day-time party) she had said as if she was in the know, as if her daughter had texted her about the afternoon rager.
I hadn’t been an overly involved parent through my daughter’s adolescence; I was less a hovering mom, more an “I’m there if you need me” type. She didn’t have to call me from the train station when she’d arrive home from the city with friends, I didn’t ask for specific details about who did what and with whom during weekend plans, and I didn’t read texts not meant for my eyes. But now with her so far away, I wondered if I was missing out on something by not having constant information about her whereabouts.
Then one afternoon a week after the botched FaceTime call, the texts started coming. “Want to talk now for a little bit?” she asked. And we did. She told me where she’d been studying and what she’d been eating, and I was able to see she was sitting on her made bed, the framed picture with her brother behind her on the wall. I wanted to touch the wisps of her hair, the ones that didn’t quite fit in her ponytail, and I wanted to hug her tight. Six second hugs, we’d say. Those are the ones that count.
I thought back to the dad at the birthday party, and the mom next to me on the plane, and their all-access GPS passes to their college freshmen. Sure, they might know where their kids were at every moment while I didn’t, but I realized I’d rather know about my daughter’s college experiences from her perspective, on her terms, even if it wasn’t as often as I’d like. To allow her to forge her own path, and find the right balance of communication with me now that we are no longer living under the same roof.
So I wait for her to come to me, and believe that these unexpected, authentic snippets—a quick call on the way back from the gym, a late night text telling me about sorority rush, a brief FaceTime call on the walk back from the library—far outweigh any round-the-clock location tracker.
I’ve worked hard in the past years to let my daughter go, despite my innate urge to do otherwise—to allow her the opportunity to survive independently, without always holding her hand. And I will continue to do so, even with her there and me here.
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