College Winter Break—Confirmation of Why Your Adult Child No Longer Lives at Home

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This is going to sound very unlike me since it was only four months ago that I wept for weeks (ok, more like a month) after saying goodbye to my college freshman. However, I need to be honest here. Yes, I am crazy about my daughter, but now after a five-week winter break (during which we did get to escape from the tundra for a week), I understand with great clarity that when a child reaches 18 or 19 years old, it is time for them to fly the coop. And when they come home for an extended period of time, it can be tricky.

“January can be the longest month with college kids at home,” Lisa Endlich Hefferman and Mary Dell Harrington of Grown and Flown explained to me as I reached out to them in an attempt to normalize my feelings about this drawn out and somewhat confusing transitional period. “You’ll gradually establish a new mother-daughter relationship but it can be challenging, as you must already know,” they revealed.

As much as I loved having my daughter home, there was an inevitable shift that occurred—that has been occurring since she left—a shift for her, for me and for the rest of our family. The five of us have adjusted to the lowered barometric pressure in our house.

Exhale.

Thankfully, my daughter also has adjusted easily and happily to the non-stop hustle and bustle of dorm and college life, where she is in charge of what she does, whom she is with and the choices she makes.  There is no “all-knowing parent” watching over her shoulder, monitoring and commenting on her movements, and again, thankfully, she is managing her academic and social life really well.

However, when she comes home, she (like most of the college-age kids whose mothers I speak with) expects to be able to exercise these same freedoms.

There is a slight problem with this.

It doesn’t work.

There have to be limits and rules and curfews even though “you don’t know what time I get back to my dorm room when I am at school…you don’t know where I am and who I am with every minute of the day or night…I manage myself just fine! Why can’t you just TRUST ME?!”

The issue is not about trust. I do trust my daughter. But in order for us parents to maintain our sanity and a feeling of order in our homes, we need our children (including our adult children who now spend the majority of their time away at college) to respect our house rules, even if they don’t like them.

This is about our children respecting their parents, and not allowing our college kids to hold us hostage and worry us sick as they assert their incessant desire for autonomy.

I am grateful that my daughter is enjoying the freedom she has as a college student and that she is figuring out how to be a responsible, self-sufficient adult. That’s what we all hope for. But when your adult child comes home with this newly developed sense of independence, there is an interesting dynamic that comes into play between your adult child and you—one that I wasn’t completely prepared for (although many of my friends with older kids tried to warn me).

As stressful and uncomfortable as this transition can be,  Mary Dell and Lisa are right, there is joy in the “new normal.”

“I am so happy to be back here, mom,”  my daughter told me today, her first day back at school. And her statement wasn’t a “I am better off without you” message to me. It was an honest declaration of where she is at in her life. She is happy as a college student—living away from home, forging her own path. And I am truly happy for her, and happy for our newly developing relationship.

Comments

  1. My daughter is home for her Christmas break also. She’s a junior so we’re used to it- the transition when she comes home; but it still gets a little tense sometimes. I love her so much and we get along great, but there’s always some relief for both of us when she goes back to school. On the other hand, her college and apartment are only a short drive away (40 min. or so), yet she chooses to come home on her breaks. I wouldn’t have done that when I was her age, so I’m glad we have a decent relationship.
    But I was just saying to my husband the other day that it is good for young adults to live away from their parents 😉

    • Thanks Miriam. So nice that you have such a close relationship with your daughter.I am so grateful that my relationship with my daughter has gotten even closer since she has left for school.Nice to hear that you do get used to the transitions but to expect some tense moments.

  2. Julie, you have done a wonderful job of describing how the elation at seeing our just-home college student can become filled with tension so quickly. After seeing my 23-year old son through 4 college winter breaks, I believe that there may have been no greater opportunity for him to flex his new-found independence muscles than at those really long holidays. Now that he has graduated, gotten a job and moved into the city (yeah for each), I realize that without him gaining the ability to live on his own and pull away from us, we would have much less to celebrate. But the process was sometimes painful.

    Lisa and I are a few years ahead of you (her eldest two are in college) and are happy to report from this side. Hang in there!

    • Thank you so much! I am so appreciative of the thoughtful and sound advice that I have gotten from the wonderful Grown and Flown women! And double yeah on the job and the move for your son! Those are huge!

  3. When my now 22-year-old college graduate was home for her freshman year break, she said, as I asked where she was going one night, “I’m not used to telling anyone where I’m going to be,” echoing your daughter’s sentiments exactly. House rules do change and it is nice to watch them gain their independence, but we all struggle a bit through these growing pains. Texting does make life more manageable, though. At least they can let you know if they’re going to be late, sleep at a friend’s, or change where they’re going and who they’re with. Welcome to life with a college student. Sounds like you’re doing just fine.

  4. Stephanie Sprenger says:

    Julie, this is so eye-opening and mind-opening! With my oldest at only 7, it feels like this is SO far away. But not really. We all know what motherhood does to the whole concept of time. It must be such a relief to have the Grown and Flown ladies as resources- I hope there are people like that I can turn to when my time comes!

  5. I will be there for you, Stephanie! I will just have sent my youngest to college two yours prior to your oldest heading off. Hopefully I will still have some energy left to enjoy the empty nest. Wait but, I could be a grandma by then too…OY! 🙂

  6. Our oldest son heads back to school this weekend. He’s a junior so we’ve done this a few times already. I hate to say it gets easier but the truth is it does. I will miss him but I know he needs to be there finding the next step in his life. There is as much joy in watching him taking these first adults steps as there was when he was just learning to walk. He knows I’ll catch him if he stumbles and that I’ll cheer him on when he feels grounded and steady, too.

    • Thank you for this, Kelly! I am so glad to hear it gets easier. I feel like we are still in the adjustment stage. I love what you said, “He knows I’ll catch him if he stumbles and that I’ll cheer him on when he feels grounded and steady, too.” Words to parent by…

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