December Parent Devotion: The Bittersweet Reality Check of Expectations When Our Kids Come Home
“I’m so excited that Zach finally comes home today!” said Zach’s mom when I ran into her in the grocery store the day before Thanksgiving back in 2004.
Her face was glowing with joy at the anticipation of Zach’s pending homecoming.
Zach was a football player at a college almost a thousand miles away from home, and she hadn’t seen him since dropping him off in July for summer training.
Zach was the best friend of my stepson, Chris, and it was their freshman year of college. Chris was attending college locally in our hometown, so our transition with him hadn’t been too tough. But the scattering of his friends to various colleges across the country had left an odd emptiness in our home that was hard to get used to.
Our house had always been the place where Chris’ friends gathered, often camping out on our basement couch for days. I missed the constant coming and going of these big, sweet high school boys who I loved like my own, their noisy chaos and the giant pairs of sneakers that had always cluttered the front hallway. My three biological kids were still in elementary school, but I’d cherished the privilege of getting to “taste-test” parenthood during the high school and young adult years as Chris’ stepmom.
As that Thanksgiving approached, I looked forward to our home being full again with Chris and his friends. When they started showing up a few days before Thanksgiving to reunite, I welcomed them all with open arms.
It never occurred to me that Zach had told his mom he wasn’t coming home until Wednesday. But as I saw her excitement about finally being able to see her son, I realized she didn’t know he’d actually been sleeping on our couch for the past two nights.
I told her to give him a hug from me and quickly bolted from the grocery store to confront my basement full of freshman stowaways.
“Everybody out! It’s time to go home to your families! NOW!” I announced.
Pulling Zach aside, I hissed, “I ran into your mom at the grocery store this morning—apparently she had no clue that you’re already in town!”
“You didn’t tell her, did you?” asked Zach, clearly terrified. “I just wanted to spend time with my friends, and I know once I go home she’s not going to let me leave.”
Fortunately, I hadn’t told her—I didn’t have the heart to break her heart with that news. And I could understand Zach’s dilemma of wanting to see his friends but not disappoint his parents.
Nearly a decade later when I anticipated my daughter Paige’s arrival home for winter break of her freshman year, I couldn’t stop thinking about the scenario with Zach.
I tried to put a reality check on my expectations for her return from college, abandoning my hopeful vision of spending every possible minute together as a family. I didn’t want my heart to be shattered with disappointment or drive her to have to lie about her whereabouts.
I knew she’d want to spend time with her friends, and sharing what little time we had wasn’t easy.
But at least I’d been prepared for what to expect…or so I thought.
I’d been prepared for her arrival home, looking forward to savoring our time together but respecting the balance of time for friends and family. I’d accepted that she missed her friends more than her mom—it was just the reality of how most college freshmen feel.
But what I hadn’t expected was that by the end of winter break it would be so painfully obvious she was ready to go back to college and reclaim her independence.
She missed the new routine at schoool that was now her life.
As her time at home drew to a close, she grew antsy and somewhat irritable. It was clear she'd had enough of us, and seemed to be pulling away.
I tried to rationalize her attitude as a subconscious coping mechanism that young adult kids must use to process the separation. But when she said “I miss my bed,” referring to her crappy dorm bed that consisted of a 5-inch-thick piece of vinyl, I knew our time together was up.
It was time to say goodbye.
We had officially entered into a new season that consisted of a rhythm of coming and going, where each goodbye would further cement the truth that “home” was no longer where she resided, but where she came to visit.
She’d left the nest, and I should have expected that now her wings required space to fly.
Since experiencing "phase 2" of letting go after Paige’s first extended break home from college, I’ve adjusted my expectations and tried to embrace the goodness of this new reality.
But I'd be lying if I said it was easy.
Just when I thought I'd finally learned how to enjoy the rhythm of my daughter's independence, my son entered his freshmen year of college. This Thanksgiving marked his first time home since August, and I'd forgotten how hard it is to adjust to the new normal with each child taking flight.
Although I consider myself a "veteran" of parenting in these leaving-the-nest years, I had to pull over for a good cry after dropping him off at the airport after a much-too-short Thanksgiving visit that somehow left me feeling more empty than full.
I think it will always be bittersweet.
Have you ever had a picture in your head of how things are “supposed” to be, and then you’re disappointed when they don’t turn out like you imagined they would?
It’s easy to let our hopes for how we want things to turn out become our expectations. And when circumstances don’t meet our expectations, we get disappointed, hurt or frustrated.
Sometimes we have expectations about small things—such as how events of our day should go. And sometimes we have expectations about big things—life things—like our career, our kids’ futures, and our relationships.
Read and reflect on the following passages from the Bible:
“Let all that I am wait quietly before God, for my hope is in him.” Psalms 62:5
“And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” Romans 8:28
God’s plans don’t always look like our plans. But we can be assured that he does have a plan for us. Are there certain unmet expectations in your life that you’re frustrated with that you’d like to release your grip on and give to God? What visions in your head could you let go of to give you room for his peace.
Journal your thoughts from the questions above and ask God to help you let go of unment expectations and trust his next steps.
Up for a challenge?
As you look forward to the return of your college student for holiday breaks, what expectations are on your mind? In what ways might you prepare for their return that will avoid conflict or disappointment? Are there certain expectations you need to communicate in advance such as specific times to gather with family, house rules or curfews, etc? Consider writing a list and invite your college student’s input in the process.
By Kami Gilmour, mom of 5 teen and young adult kids. She's also the author of the best-selling book Release My Grip.