The ever-shifting but never fully unpacked suitcase is the first clue. This is no ordinary houseguest.
When your child leaves for college, there is plenty of advice on how to handle the transition, ranging from gentle comedy to true grief counseling. It is an adjustment period for the whole family. What no one warns you about, though, is when they come back.
By the time I went to collect my oldest this past May for his first summer home, I was desperate for just his physical presence in my orbit. It had been months with no visits or breaks. My inner dialogue was manic; “I have him back for three months! I can nag him in person! I can revive his healthy habits! I can drag him on errands just to be with him. I can hug him whenever I want!”
It might be observed that I was setting some unrealistic expectations.
I will skip the horror of packing up a freshman boy’s dorm because the thought of that shared bathroom still gives me a full-body shudder. Also, the twelve-hour road trip home where I was unceremoniously informed that I would not be driving. Joke’s on him, though, since I controlled the playlist, so his “bad 80s music” history lesson is now complete.
The ever-shifting but never fully unpacked suitcases should have been the first clue. This is no ordinary houseguest, nor is it really your “baby,” anymore. It was a genuine culture shock to have him back home. He is a whole new person that I both recognize and don’t. I once wrote a letter to my sons’ grade school teachers, explaining that they got one kid in the fall and sent back a whole different kid at the end of the year. The college years are like that, but on steroids.
I’ve compiled a list of Pros and Cons for living with this hybrid houseguest/college student.
The Cons are fairly obvious to anyone with an older teenager: the eating, the laundry, the sleeping, the arguments over cars, the laundry, the inappropriate jokes, reignited wars and overall nonsense with siblings, the laundry, the chaos of the late-night social life, the pseudo-independence… “out of sight, out of mind” takes on a whole new meaning as the parent of a college student. Did I mention the laundry?
The Pros are not as simple to define. Of course, there are the sibling taxi services, the errand buddy, and the hugs (he is incredibly patient with my need for tactile reassurances). But there is also this maddening, yet hilarious budding relationship with my new mini-adult. There is an evolving rhythm and confidence in how he moves through life that is a wonder to behold.
Observing this sliver of time while he hovers between childhood and adulthood, I feel an odd mixture of nostalgia, jealousy, hope, and joy. For those lucky enough to experience it, this is a magical time of freedom and seeming invincibility with a built-in safety net. A time that you can’t truly appreciate, like most of youth, until you are long past it. So many wondrous possibilities lay ahead, so many paths, so many choices – bearing witness to this “becoming” is one of parenting’s ultimate blessings.
The countdown is already on for getting him back to school. I both revel in and dread it. I am full of pride and excitement for his next adventures, but I am also acutely aware of my imminent mourning period as I adjust to his absence once more.
I can’t wait to see what next summer’s houseguest looks like. In the meantime, I’ll miss everything but the laundry.
*This essay originally appeared in “The Hinsdalean” newspaper as a guest column on July 20, 2023