When my daughter started her freshman year of college, I found myself in an entirely new and sometimes confusing situation. She was there and I was here. I mean, I saw that coming, obviously. But the reality was much stranger than the idea. I was still in the position of being a parent, with a lot of parenting to do, but without an actual kid present.
It didn’t take long for a new pattern in our relationship to emerge: Texting. So many texts! I was still parenting and weighing in on her life, only I was doing it via text instead of in person. I was slowly learning the art of long distance parenting.
Advice was a big thing. Both her asking for it and me wanting to share it. My daughter made a lot more requests for my opinion, especially in the beginning, because so many things about college life were new and intense. Being five hours away from home in an upstate New York hamlet was a bit of a culture shock for her.
She asked for advice on everything from snack choices to extracurriculars. I had to learn how to finesse this situation and give advice that was requested and not smother her when she was simply venting. And there was a lot of venting.
Listening is a skill that I had to hone. I’m the mother who wants to give you all the advice, whether you want it or not. I schooled myself in the art of holding my tongue and simply listening. Because honestly, sometimes all she wanted to do was spew stuff at me—good, bad, and worrying—and have me listen and uh-huh at her.
But I also had to learn to step in, when necessary. She was anxious when she had to take the train home for her first fall break. The process involved a crash course in getting a train ticket, scheduling her shuttle to the train station, and figuring out her itinerary.
The main fear, for both of us, was the dreaded what if. Mainly, what if she missed her shuttle and/or train and was left there? It was a worrying thought for both of us since the campus actually shuts down during the break, and she had no family there.
In this instance, I did step in and parent, for both our sanity. I contacted the student liaison and spoke to her about the issue, then I reported back to my daughter. We had a game plan, and we both felt much better.
Calming Them Down
Another thing I had to learn about parenting a college student long distance was dealing with panic.
When they’re worried, sad, stressed, or angry, I feel it, man do I feel it—not panicking was a difficult hurdle for me.
She’d panic and text me, I’d panic and text her back, meanwhile I was spewing panic all over my poor boyfriend. He would then say something calm and logical, I would text her whatever he said, and by the time we did this a few dozen times, she’d message me and say, “It’s fine! I figured it out!” Meanwhile, I was having an anxiety attack and my heart was pounding. I had to remind myself to breathe.
Coping with Silence
When I’m not surviving the venting and panicking, I’m dealing with the dreaded silence.
I found that after she had some time to adjust to college life, there were great vacuums of silence. No texts. Rarely a whole day, but some days I’d only get a single text or two. At first it was a bit unsettling. Then I put it into perspective and realized it was a good thing. Her silence meant things were going well.
If the silence stretched too long, I’d text her. Usually, I’d get a “Sorry, busy day.” Which is good! Hell, it’s great!
Since so much of my parenting was happening via text, it would have been very easy to leave it at that. But it was good for both of us to go beyond text on a screen. We made time to get on the phone occasionally, and I made a point to send traditional mail as often as I could, whether it was a care package full of goodies or just a simple card with a sticker in it. My daughter even managed a few letters via snail mail on some stationery I bought for her before she left for college.
I still don’t have it all figured out and I’m sure more challenges will reveal themselves as we go. We have two more years of college left, after all. The parenting hurdles never end, but that’s the nature of parenting— whether it’s in person or long distance.