Welcome Home, Little One: A Student Returns After the First Semester Away at College

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The first visit home from college is not without its bumps…

With painstaking attention to her preferences, I spent time last week preparing for Emily’s first return from college. She has been gone since August 23, and while my husband and I have seen her once, during Parents’ Weekend on her campus, she has not been home for almost three months. We have really been looking forward to having Emily home for Thanksgiving, picturing lingering meals, with no pressure to be anywhere else, and easy, joyful conversations, maybe with me sitting on the end of her bed.

I spruced up her room and freshened her sheets, put flowers in her bathroom, and got a few little treats for her bedside table – a holiday cookie magazine (she misses having a kitchen for baking), some mints, a little chocolate from South America, and a special, hand-made greeting card with a picture of a shimmering egg, nestled on a lovely, heirloom nest. The message reads “Welcome home, little one.” I added my personal message, sure she would be touched.

Imagine then, my shattering disappointment when Emily announced on the phone a few days before her arrival that she planned to have her boyfriend pick her up at the airport Thursday night, and from there, head right to College Park, so she could “hang out with some friends.” She said she’d be home by Sunday. (Sunday??!!) I was unable to respond. We were hurt, and stunned, and at a loss for the proper course. We know she’s been enjoying unfettered independence since the end of summer, but where did she get the idea that she could spend the weekend in her boyfriend’s dorm room? Three months ago, we wrung our hands about whether she should be able to join his family at the beach for a few days. What has changed in those few weeks?

The answer is: plenty. She doesn’t live here anymore. We no longer set the rules for how she uses her time, where she goes, what she does or doesn’t do. Leaving for college is a right of passage and point of departure, with no certain path for return. It will never be the way it used to be again. Although she is only 18, and still dependent on us for so many practical things, we will have to learn to respect her new freedom, and learn how to live with what we can control – our own actions and reactions.

So, we called Emily back. We told her we expected to pick her up from the airport this first time home, and that we expected her to come here, to the house, at least for the first night. She asked, “Are you making me?” We said, “yes.” Whatever that means. Our concession, which I think was HUGE, was that she could leave for College Park, and friends, in the morning. It felt like compromise to us.

The drive from the airport, predictably tense, was punctuated only by sharp tones, disappointed words, exchanged in both directions. Through the door, she turned back into the petulant 12 year old she has grown out of, rolling her eyes at the food in the refrigerator, complaining about the off-white bedspread I’ve replaced for her tie-die. We bickered. Her little brothers came in, probably to stop us from fighting, and they all wrestled together. I was grateful, as the mood softened. A while after I left her room, I heard the steady, low tone of conversation, short stories with lulls and giggles, shared with her sister. The friction had eased. She was under our roof. And as I laid my own head down, I whispered my quiet prayer, “welcome home, little one.”

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  1. Hoo-boy, was that a walk in a mine field! And it sounds like you did just right: she is still your responsibility, so long as you are paying the tuition and her health insurance and buying her clothes, etc etc. So it isn’t asking too much for the child to come home to spend the holiday with the parents who do support her so well.
    The independence thing is wonderful, for sure, but it comes with a price. One is not truly independent until one can give a little back to the rest of the residents of this city, society, or planet from the goodness we have. So when she has reached a position in her life at which she can point to what she has contributed from her accomplishment to the betterment of others, then she might be ready to brush off the parents for time with her new friends. But it would greatly surprise me to learn that she is there yet.
    Sure, she was a little hurt that her opening foray into total self-reliance was stifled. But a year from now (or maybe even a week from now), she will be fine with it. The friends will change, and the time for “hanging out” will come & go; but her family will always be there.

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