Home for the holidays: expect the unexpected

Today my younger daughter, a college freshman, returns from college for the Christmas break. It is her second return from college far away as she spent the Spring semester of her senior year at a Canadian university. I am therefore forewarned to prepare myself to ‘Expect the unexpected,’ ‘To go with the flow,’ ‘To take what we get. . .’

It’s strange how parents, who thought they knew it all, find themselves (albeit unwillingly) experiencing much personal growth when their children leave for college, and even more somehow when they return. I found a nugget of wisdom in an unlikely place last Sunday, in the local newspaper’s Weekend Magazine. In an interview, a Baby-boomer dad was asked, “What do parents really want when it comes to their children?”  His reply: “Independence. You want them to navigate the world without having their hands held.”

It’s true. This is what we do want! Reading this answer put things back into perspective for me as I began to anticipate seeing changes in my daughter and to prepare myself for continuing changes in my relationship with her. As an experienced parent having gone through this stage with two other children, I am cognizant that ‘no two children are alike’ and the challenges with each often come ‘out of left field.’ But that’s okay – I do feel I will be better able to adjust if I stay aware that the dynamic is changing. Parenting is, of course, a constant process of adjusting expectations and redefining roles. It’s just harder at this stage as the adult child is doing most of the redefining. . .

For those new to the “home from college for the holidays thing”, and those who have forgotten, here are some useful tips:

  • Stock up the refrigerator and pantry with treats and healthy foods suitable for late night snacking.
  • Don’t be surprised if your child arrives home drained and exhausted. Semesters are intense. The final weeks of completing major assignments and exams at college are grueling. Let them have the unstructured down time they need.
  • Accept that your student’s holiday time priorities are not the same as yours. They will want to go out and visit high school friends also back from college; your plans for the traditional family trimming of the Christmas tree may have to take a back seat. (I have compromised in the past by setting aside the special ornaments for my son to add to the decorated tree!)
  • Expect this to be a confusing and disorienting time, with frequent ups and downs.
  • Resist the temptation to “measure” the results of your financial investment in college by the quality of your interactions with your, apparently, “prodigal” child!
  • Be glad that the transformative process to independent adult is underway – it will take the full four years!
  • Silently give thanks for the behaviors and possible outcomes of the semester that you aren’t seeing.

For these four years, your student will be “in and out of your life”, in fits and starts. You will share in the triumphs and crises. During the holidays, you can remind yourself to enjoy the little moments – the seemingly insignificant treasure – the stuff of memories.

“Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?”

– Thornton Wilder, Our Town

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