My first tip-off that my relationship with our college freshman would become decidedly different should have been obvious. The truth is, it became obvious in a way I'd never anticipated.
It was early October, and fall break was fast approaching at the college our 18-year-old daughter, Hannah, attended. I was eager to have Hannah back home for this four-day weekend, the midpoint in her first semester. Our Sunday afternoon phone calls and occasional online Instant Messages just hadn't filled me in on all the details of her life I'd been used to getting.
I drove the three hours to Hannah's campus, wondering whatif anychanges I'd notice in the daughter my husband, Ben, and I had left behind six weeks earlier. As I parked in front of her dorm, I caught sight of a smiling, bandana-swathed Hannah coming toward our car as she toted her green laundry basket brimming with dirty clothes. Then my eyes detected something else greenlime green. And it wasn't spilling out of her laundry basket. No, this lime-green thing was sprouting from Hannah's right eyebrow!
Within the few short weeks Hannah had been away at school, she'd pierced her eyebrow and now sported a ring with a bright green bead on it. While an eyebrow ring was hardly the end of the world, it was something I never thought Hannah would do. Shock, dismay and disappointment coursed through mereactions I certainly hadn't planned on experiencing during our first time together since August. After a quick hug, I managed to sputter, "What's up with that thing in your eyebrow?"
"Oh, that," Hannah said casually as she loaded her duffel and laundry basket into the car. "A girl down the hall in my dorm and I decided to do it together. You should be glad, Mom," she added, reading my expression. "At least I didn't get a nose ring."
The next thing I knew, I said some things I probably shouldn't have, such as how I thought it looked ridiculous, that it was a waste of money, and what in the world was she thinking?
"Mom, you forget I'm 18. I don't need your permission anymore."
There it was: the obvious. I'd just been handed an undeniable declaration of independenceand its nonverbal reminder stared back at me each time I now looked into Hannah's face. The ride home was subdued, and as we sailed down the highway, I suddenly felt like Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz after she crash-landed into Munchkin Land, then whispered to her little dog, Toto, "I don't think we're in Kansas anymore." It dawned on me that the familiar parameters of our parent-teen relationshipthe ones we'd hashed out during Hannah's high school yearssuddenly were up for renegotiation.
The good news is my husband and I survived last fall's eyebrow episodeand Hannah's freshman year of college. Once we recovered from our initial shock and discomfort over the ring, we actually had a great weekend with Hannah. By the time we drove her back to campus on Sunday night, we hardly noticed it.
But there were other things about this weird transition time that were harder not to notice, things that made me want to scream each time Hannah came back home for a visit, "Have aliens abducted my kid?"
For instance, I was stunned during Hannah's first weekend home when she actually volunteered to clear the dinner table, unload the dishwasher, and clean up the leftoverswithout my asking. This was not the teen I remembered from high school. Was it guilt over her eyebrow ring? Was it the sheer joy of having a home-cooked meal after weeks of dining-hall eating? I didn't waste too much time analyzing the motivation behind Hannah's newfound eagerness to pitch in. I simply enjoyed it.
But I learned never to assume this was the new status quo. I discovered things could change in a New York minute if Hannah felt her independence called into question. She'd clam up or act put upon.
For example, it snowed like crazy over Hannah's Christmas break, and Ben and I were tired of battling the blizzard. Hannah to the rescue, right? After all, she'd spent her days home sleeping in till noon, e-mailing friends on our computer, raiding the refrigerator, and channel surfing from the family-room sofa. "Hannah, please shovel the driveway for us."