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My College Student is Home for Summer Break, and I’m Feeling Ambivalent

When our oldest son, Sam, left for college in August of 2021, his brothers, dad, and I missed him enormously and counted down the days until his return at Thanksgiving.

I pictured Sam walking through the front door greeted by warm, teary embraces worthy of a holiday Hallmark commercial. I even imagined maybe, just maybe, I’d receive a few compliments on my cooking, too. 

Unfortunately, my vision didn’t align with reality that first homecoming, nor any homecoming since. Yes, there are still hugs and smiles, but what typically happens is this: Sam staggers through the door exhausted from the eight-hour car ride and days of studying for the multiple tests crammed in before breaks. He’s grouchy as a grizzly bear awakened from hibernation. 

We’ve learned to wait until he’s well-rested to ask about college life.

Though we try to stock up on Sam’s favorite foods prior to his arrival, invariably he opens the fridge, squints in its blinding light, and asks, “Is this it? Got anything else?” 

Apparently, our offerings can’t compete with the myriad options presented at the dining halls or the close-to-campus Qdoba and Panda Express.

On many nights, as his dad and I prepare for bed, shutting off lights and locking doors, Sam comes bounding down the steps, filled with energy.

“I’m going to Max’s to play poker,” he says as he jams his feet into sneakers. “See you guys in the morning!”

“What? It’s almost midnight!” I gasp, then cringe. I hated when I was a teen and my parents acted like I’m doing now — but now that I’m on the other side, I get it. I want to know my child is home safe this late at night. 

But also, I don’t want to hear him come in the door at 2 a.m., fix himself a snack, then drop the toilet seat on his way to bed. (And then there are the nights when he’s forgotten his house key after living with combination door locks in his dorm, and later, his apartment!) I also don’t think it’s fair that he expects to sleep soundly until noon the next day, or that when he finally emerges, he complains we’ve been too loud.

“Louder than your dorm?” we ask him, insulted.

Suddenly, we’re locked in a silent, broody standoff. 

We’d been so excited to see him. He said he’d been excited to see us. How was this visit going this badly? And why does it feel oddly familiar? 

I have a strong sense of deja vu and I can’t place it until I read Melissa Elder’s poem, Jekyll & Hyde, which explores a parent’s joy at seeing their baby again when they awaken from a nap. But then the baby fusses, and after enduring a few minutes of that, the parent begins to look forward to their little one’s next nap.

I remember those moments with a crabby infant vividly, and now here I am again. I find that within days of Sam’s homecoming, I wonder, “When are you leaving?” I feel awful, especially when friends and family gush, “Oh, you must be so thrilled to have him home!” 

Initially, I say, “Oh, yes! Oh, I am! We are!” I nod and grin because that’s what a parent is supposed to do. 

But as time passes, I decide to change my response. 

“I’m bracing myself,” I now say. “Sometimes it’s a rough adjustment — for all of us! We seem to keep very different schedules!” which is code for “Watching him sleep until noon and stare disappointedly into the fridge is driving me batsh!t crazy!”

To my relief and surprise, other moms feel the same way. “Tell me about it!” They roll their eyes and share stories of their students staying up until dawn and dragging themselves down for “breakfast” at 2 p.m. Their kids, too, want to skip visits with Grandma; they’d rather hang with high school friends instead. 

Much like the painful parts of pregnancy and childbirth, it seems no one wants to reveal just how challenging this time can be. But once they do, it’s a comfort to know we’re not alone.

Don’t get me wrong, I remember being in Sam’s shoes during my own college days. After tasting freedom and independence, it’s hard to go backwards to a time when you had to stop and answer all the questions: “Where are you going? With whom? When will you be home?” 

And yet it’s hard to turn off that parenting switch. Of course, I don’t know where he is or what he’s up to while he’s at school. But when he’s home, knowing that information feels like it’s still part of my job as mom.

To be a bit more empathetic, I’ve thought about what it’s like for him to leave the fun of a college campus and have to assimilate into family life. 

A mom friend and I agree it’s a bit like how you feel after getting off a cruise ship or returning from any vacation — that, “What do you mean there’s no afternoon bingo or napkin-folding class? How will I go back to making dinner every night and loading and unloading the dishwasher?” 

I can imagine, and I can relate, but that doesn’t fix our issues.

To make living together again as peaceful as possible, we’ve had to compromise. 

When Sam returns home late at night after going out with friends, he remembers to take his key and comes in the door quietly. He makes sure not to slam the microwave door as he reheats leftovers in the middle of the night. If he has specific food requests, he can make them known well before he comes home. 

Before we plan to visit extended family while he’s home, we check the dates first and ask him to respond with a thumbs-up to a text so we know he got the message and we’re all on the same page. 

As happy as we are to have Sam home, even with compromise and consideration, his visits back home from college are not always perfect. I look at it this way, though: Maybe this is just how it goes. Maybe this is the natural order of things. Perhaps these growing pains are preparing us so that when Sam no longer lives with us, we’ll all be okay.

Liz Alterman’s work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and more. She’s also the author of a young adult thriller, He’ll Be Waiting.

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