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."
You'd have thought I'd asked her to scoop dog droppings from our backyard, or do something equally distasteful. She fairly bristled, "Why don't you do it if it needs to be done? I don't want to; I don't feel like it."
I was surprised by her reaction, since Hannah didn't usually respond this way to our requests. I suddenly realized I'd ordered her about in a tone I'd used when she was a child. So I held my tongue and let slide her unwillingness to shovel.
We weren't as easy on her when it came to curfews. After she complained that none of her friends had to answer for the hours they kept, Ben and I bluntly told Hannah her late arrivals (accompanied by our noisy garage door opener and our barking dog) took their toll on our sleep and our subsequent workdays. So we hammered out a compromise we all could live withone that allowed Hannah several curfew-free nights, yet also provided us with a few more nights of undisturbed sleep.
When she balked at visiting some relatives with young children, we realized that at her age, we'd rather be with friends, too, and let it pass. But we stood firm on requiring her to do the same household chores she had while in high school. Each issue that cropped up took some work before we reached a satisfactory resolution.
This Too Shall Pass
Thank goodness for some friends at church who reminded me that this frustrating push-and-pull over independence was part of the natural process of redefining our ever-evolving parent-child relationship. The reality was, Hannah's leaving home for college had placed us on different footingand the subtle changes in our roles were causing a temporary loss of equilibrium in our family dynamic.
During that first year of college, I had to take a hard look at my attitudes (while praying for the ability to forgive Hannah's when she came across as thoughtless and rude). God helped me understand Hannah's perspective, even if I didn't always agree with it. After all, as an 18-year-old, she was legally an adult; but I didn't always treat her as such. She now lived most of the year in an environment in which she was free to come and go as she pleasedwithin the boundaries of college dorm rules. There, nobody asked her to shovel the driveway or take out the garbage or phone home if she was lateall perfectly reasonable requests when set within the context of our family. It couldn't be any easier for Hannah to shift gears when she came back home than it was for me, and the switchover sometimes made us both edgy. That awareness helped me begin not to take Hannah's reactions so personally.
As I slowly began to lighten up, I noticed subtle changes in Hannah. The consideration she expressed during her first weekend home began appearing with more regularity on subsequent visits. Hannah occasionally exhibited a new appreciation for home, and an interest in us that was both refreshing and affirming. We'd sometimes spend more time around the dinner table talking, as Hannah would admit her confusion over selecting a major, or chatting during a shopping excursion like old friends bursting to catch up with each other. When the inevitable power struggles reared their ugly head, instead of overreacting, I'd try to grit my teeth, shoot up a quick plea to God for patience, and remind myself, this too shall pass!
Saying No, Letting Go
Ben and I learned early on in Hannah's adolescence that we needed to choose our battles wisely. We know a piece of jewelry or a crabby attitude from our college student aren't worth waging war over. However, some things are.
That battle occurred over Hannah's Christmas break, when she wanted to drive with some high-school friends to a state university four hours away to attend a New Year's Eve party. The university has a well-known reputation as a party school, and the drive would have meant she and her friends would stay overnight at the apartment of a guy we didn't know from Adam. When she asked if we were OK with this, our response was an unequivocal "no." As Christian parents, we couldn't endorse Hannah putting herself in a situation that lent itself not only to serious partying but potential danger. A war of words ensued. "Why does it matter what I do at home," Hannah angrily insisted, "when you don't know what I'm doing while I'm away at school? Why should you be worried now when you're not worried then?"
Our responsethat she was still our responsibility, that we felt uncomfortable with the whole setup while she was living under our roofdidn't particularly satisfy Hannah. In the end, she didn't defy us by going. Instead, she connected with some other friends to welcome in the new year, while Ben and I crashed at home, exhausted from the emotional fallout, long before the ball dropped in Times Square. Hannah was upset for days, and took it out on us with the silent treatment.
While Ben and I were relieved that Hannah didn't go, we'll handle similar situations differently in the future. We'll tell Hannah that while we disagree with what she might plan to do, the decision ultimately is hersas well as the consequences. As Hannah's college years roll by, I know Ben and I will be continually seeking that tricky balance between staying involved and letting go.
A Lot More Prayer
If anything, having a student in college has driven me to pray for our daughter more fervently than before. While she's a Christian and attends a great college, I know she's daily facing the kinds of decisions that can have far greater consequences than that of a pierced eyebrow. As our parental involvement decreases, our dependence on God increases. How thankful I am to know he's present with Hannah both away at school and at home. So I pray not only for her own spiritual, emotional, and intellectual maturity, but also for the maturity I require to love her, understand her, and be the kind of parent she needs most at this point in her life.
Despite the inevitable tensions we've experienced along the way, we've also experienced moments of joy. As Hannah and I continue to find that equilibrium in our relationship, signs of a wonderful, more adult-like friendship emerge. For example, during spring break, Hannah and I went out together to a Mexican restaurant and then took in a chick flick. This never would have happened during Hannah's high school years, when being seen with a parent rather than a friend would have meant death by embarrassment. She knows we pray for her, and she tells Ben and me that she prays for us. Hannah's also become more affectionate in her e-mails and phone conversations, always telling us how much she misses usmusic to my ears!
Now Hannah's a sophomore, and before I know it, she'll be graduating. True independencewith all its adult freedoms and responsibilitiesisn't far away. I'm sure that once I think I've got things all figured out, it will again be time to redefine our relationship.
No, I'm not in Kansas anymore. But then, neither is Hannah. Some days, when it comes to our relationship, I'm not exactly sure where we are. But we'll always figure out a way to meet somewhere in the middle. That's all part of this adventure called parenting. n
*All names have been changed, including the author's