Phoning Home: Parenting Your College Student When the Glitter Wears Off
Last week I finally got “the text” from my college freshmen son.
It had been three weeks since college drop-off day, and I’d worked really hard not to pester him too much with my needy texts, phone calls, and questions. Every so often I’d text him a quick “love & miss you,” along with a pertinent question I’d been dying to know, like if he’s happy, if he’s making friends, if he’s liking class, etc.
Consistently, his responses back to my texts have been super short: “It’s great!!” “Yes!!” “Love you too!!”
I’ve only talked to him on a handful of occasions. Every time I call he seems to be hurrying to class or hanging out with friends.
As a mom who struggles with the process of letting go, being so disconnected from his new life has been tough. He’s always been an independent kid, but my only assurances that he was doing OK were a plethora of exclamation points in his brief but upbeat text responses.
Until I got a text from him that began with “UGH.”
The full text was practically a novel--a venting of frustration about how hard his calculus class was, how he’d never struggled with math until now, how he was worried a bad grade would make him lose his scholarship, how his demanding class schedule conflicted with club baseball practice and he realized he couldn’t do both, and how stressed and confused he was about what he really wanted to do for a career.
It ended with, “I think I want to change my major. Please don’t be mad. Can we talk?”
And in that moment this mama felt the heavens part with rays of light and an angels' chorus singing “Hallelujah!”
My role as his mother—as a sounding board, adviser, and encourage--was not over. He was reaching out for wisdom and guidance because he was finally ready for it.
And I was ready for it too.
Everyone knows honeymoons don't last forever
I'm not a stranger to receiving this kind of text at approximately the 3-4 week mark of freshmen or sophomore year of college. My daughter, now a college senior, had also reached out around this time as the glitter of her freshmen year wore off, revealing the big reality of classes, pressure, and uncertainty underneath.
And just in the last week four of my friends who have kids in college mentioned getting a similar phone call recently. Homesickness. Frustration. Roommate tension. Uncertainties about the direction of their major. Lack of money.
Tis’ the season of reality—of our college-age kids discovering that the freedom that comes from independence also comes with the gravity of responsibility. Our once confident kids who breezed through high school with the attitude of “I can be anything when I grow up” now realize that choosing a career path is not like picking out a Halloween costume. College isn't like summer camp. This thing called "adulting" is so much more than an age on a driver's license.
For my son, his sudden epiphany that he wanted to be a policeman instead of a doctor meant navigating the university’s complicated system of changing his major from health sciences/pre-med to sociology/criminology. He had to get a new academic adviser. Some of his hardest first semester classes were now empty credit hours. It was too late to switch classes, so he’d have to catch up with his new plan next semester. He might have to take summer classes. Or maybe not even be able to get his degree in four years.
As he poured out all of these details with me on the phone, I listened. Occasionally I asked a few questions to explore what was underneath the surface, but mostly I just listened. And the more I listened, the more he talked. And vented. And shared.
Finally he got exasperated and said, “MOM! What do you think I should do? TELL ME WHAT YOU THINK I SHOULD DO!”
“I think you should slow down, take a deep breath, and keep exploring the answer, buddy.”
Boom. Motherhood clearly isn’t over, but the heart-wrenching process of letting go and accepting the change in his life is also changing me. I’ve been grieving the loss of my old role as the mother of a boy, and in the process I’m beginning to embrace my new role as the mother of a young man.
This is a new season of parenthood when my most important contribution doesn't mean having the right answers. My job description as a mom no longer consists of directing, correcting, and protecting. It has evolved into coaching and encouraging him along the path of exploring, evaluating, and making decisions that he can own himself.
And the person I need to keep pointing him to as he faces these big life choices is not me, it’s God. That is the greatest contribution that I can give him as his mother.
As much as I wanted to insert a directive opinion and calm his frantic rant with helpful solutions, I simply encouraged him to be open. I reminded him that God created him for a purpose, and has a plan for him, and he should seek God’s peace and guidance in prayer and a lot of listening. I reminded him that he's only 18-years-old, and his path to his future career will probably have several hairpin turns along the way. I reminded him that he's not alone, that God was with him every step. And I reminded him that I loved him no matter what, and would support any decision he made as long as he felt it was God’s direction.
Parenting young adult kids brings a truth into light that I can see more clearly now: Parenthood is a life-long collaboration with God. He's always been alongside us, but when our kids are small and needy it sometimes feels like we're the only people in the game. Now that my son has left home, I realize that God's role in his life will become more apparent as my role naturally steps back.
Since our conversation, my texts to my son have changed in tone to reflect a shift that’s happened in my heart. Although I still miss him, I’m no longer reaching out as the desperately sad mom who's worried about intruding on his new independence but dying to know the mundane details of his life.
I now text him whenever I feel the urge, offering a short Bible verse or simple reminder that I’m praying for him, that I believe in him, and that I love him. I am his advocate, listener, and encourager.
I’ve got a new mom-skin on that I’m wearing with confidence.
I’ve realized my son still values and trusts my role as his mother. I know he loves me, and that he knows I love him. I know he’s doing OK but also facing the normal challenges and realities of college. I know he'll feel the weight of some burdens, but instead of over-worrying or taking them on for him, I'll point him to the One who's asked to carry them.
And I know he’ll reach out if he needs me, and I'll always be there. But I’m comfortable inviting God to be his go-to person. I’ve reclaimed an appropriate place in his life, and it finally feels right.
And I’ve learned that for both my son and me, surviving and thriving in this season of “letting go” simply means “letting God.”
Written by Kami Gilmour, mom of 5 teen and young adult kids. (releasing her grip on her son at college drop-off day in the photo.) Kami is the author of a best selling devotional book for parents of college students (Release My Grip).