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My Son Helped Me Rediscover How to Be Alone

We all have those parenting moments where we think, Well, that was a fail. Right? Where we realize we’ve fallen prey to the old adage, Do as I say, not as I do. Well, I certainly have. I recently had an epic parenting fail. Mine was summed up with seven words: “Mom, that is NOT a healthy dinner.”

Even now, weeks later, my son reminds me of it. At least I know his recall is sharp.

All Those Lessons We Try to Teach Our Kids

Earlier this year, my son was accepted into a college preparatory summer program. I was thrilled for him, knowing it would be a great springboard going into his senior year of high school and a welcome change in his pandemic impacted world. But more importantly, it would be opportunity for him to spread his wings for the first time, to be away from us, his parents, and to be—dare I say—independent. So, as any rational parent would do, I gave him a crash course on how to function on his own, even though, I also like to think that these lessons have been ongoing since birth, preparing him to one day leave the nest.

In the four months prior to his program, I threw random teachable moments into my son’s day. How to iron clothes without leaving creases. How to organize a suitcase to fit in enough clothing without going over the airline’s weight limit. How to pack adequate, healthy snacks to round out questionably chosen catered meals. We mulled over potential pitfalls that he might face—the siren song of sloth, the lure of staying up late to watch just one more show—and walked through how he could work his way out of them. It was a masterclass and I felt pretty good about his solo outing by the time he actually had to leave.

Left to My Own Devices, I Didn’t Know How to Be Alone

Because of our family’s situation—we live overseas—and because of the rapidly changing rules regarding travel and border crossing around the time of my son’s trip, my husband and I made the decision that I should travel with our son, staying in a hotel nearby for the duration of his program to be the emergency contact in case of the dreaded C-word and to battle any obstacles that our overseas status might present. 

“Think of it as a retreat,” my husband said. “You’ll be on your own, in a hotel room, able to work without interruption.” Yes, I thought, that does sound nice—no housework, no cooking meals, no interruptions as I try to write. It’d be self-care. It sounded like heaven. 

And it was great.

Until the day I dropped my son off and returned to my hotel room. All by myself. And sat. And stared. 

You see, my hotel “retreat” was the first time I had been on my own in seventeen years. To put it into perspective, NCIS and Grey’s Anatomy were new shows when I was last truly by myself. For almost two decades, despite feeling independent and doing very grown-up things, I had, in fact, never actually been on my own and I didn’t know how to be alone.

First I had a baby, then toddler, then big kid to look after. I had never given a second thought to the fact that I was always thinking about things like what to pack for lunch, or what to cook for dinner, or whether there was food in the house to do either. My life revolved around my husband and son, or just my son if my husband was traveling, meaning my daily decisions were never just about me—until the hotel sabbatical over the summer. Which is how I ended up staring at the wall and the nondescript art, with a drink from the hotel bar and a bag of potato chips for dinner.

Remembering How to Be Alone

“Mom, are you doing okay?” 

My poor son, he was truly concerned about me after seeing my pathetic attempt at a meal for one. It was the end of the first day of his program and he’d called to check in. I had wanted to make sure that he was doing okay, to ask if he’d remembered all the things we had prepped him for.  Yet, I became the focus of the conversation and the questions I had wanted to ask him were thrown back at me.

“I’m fine,” I told him. “Just trying to get my bearings.”

“You need to eat better than that,” he said, his voice tinged with concern. “You’d be mad at me if I did that.”

“I know.”

“Did you get any work done?”

“Um,” I hesitated. I had tried to work, but then proceeded to watch the Tour de France and five episodes of Friends. “No, not really.”

“Have you contacted your friends here?”

“Not yet. That’s on my to do list.”

Mom.” There, looking back at me on the phone screen, was my wonderful boy, looking more like a man everyday, speaking like the confident adult I know he’ll become. “Call them. You need to get out and do things. Don’t just sit around.” 

My own words from just weeks before, echoed back, lessons he’d obviously understood and absorbed. 

“I promise, I’ll call them. And I will get out and about tomorrow. No need to worry,” I said to him, realizing how badly I’d let him down by not following my own advice. Then I did my best to switch back to responsible parent mode, “But more importantly, how was the first day of your program?” 

Lessons Learned

In the end, my son did just fine at his program. He had a great time, learned a lot—including how to make his own decisions—and made new friends. He came out of the experience more confident about going into his senior year and ready to apply for college. 

As for me, well, I did fine too—once I remembered what independence was really like and learned how to be alone. I got some work done, visited with friends I hadn’t seen in years, and even took some time to do things simply for myself. The summer was supposed to be about teaching my son to be independent in preparation for his future. I didn’t realize until after it was over that he was preparing me for the same thing. 

Julie Tully

Cowgirl turned nomadic Navy spouse, Julie Tully writes about life, culture, and the places where they intersect. She currently lives in Italy with her husband and son. You can follow Julie’s adventures on Instagram @dispatchesfromthecowgirl and Facebook @julietullywriter.

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