When my daughter left for college, I was confident we would stay in close touch. We had a good relationship, if you didn’t count the snide comments, silent eye-rolling and rather firm bedroom-door-shutting I had come to know as her senior year in high school persona. But we had worked through the college process together and were still talking to each other, a major accomplishment.
As a would-be-college parent, I had discovered the classic book “Letting Go: A Parent’s Guide to Understanding the College Years” by Karen L. Coburn and Madge Lawrence Kreeger. In those pre-Kindle days, I kept in on my bedside table, reading a chapter each night. The authors reassured me, that yes, it was developmentally appropriate for teens to loosen the parent/child bond as they go off to college. And, in turn, parents needed to “let go” so our kids could “do the work” (psychological-speak) of developing on their own. I got all that.
But couldn’t my daughter “let go” while still staying in touch?
After we dropped her off in late August, I quickly got into the habit of sending my daughter chatty emails or shorter ones with tidbits from the news. You know – “here’s an article about a new book by that author you like – hope you are doing well, love mom”. How offensive could that be? So maybe I overdid it a tad.
After all one of my radio clients in my communications lawyering days had praised me as someone who “over-communicated.” He liked that about me, keeping him well-informed. Perhaps outside the office over-communicating doesn’t translate as well? I admit, I am not Hemmingway. I do not specialize in terse, pithy language. But I swear, the emails I wrote to my daughter during the fall of her freshman year (in those pre-texting days) were as brief as I could make them. They were just rather frequent.
And she didn’t respond to any of them.
So when my husband and I would talk with her by phone – she on her scratchy-reception cell phone from her rural campus in upstate New York – and us on our landline in the DC suburbs – on our regular Sunday night call, I would ask her about her lack of return communication.
“Mom, stop pestering me! I’m doing fine. You keep emailing me. It’s too much.”, she would say.
“O.K., I understand (but apparently I really didn’t), but can’t you please respond to just a few of my emails?”
Big sigh overheard from upstate New York.
“Mom, c’mon, please, you don’t get it.” She repeated. “I’m fine.”
After these unsatisfying phone calls, I would return to my now very well-thumbed through copy of “Letting Go”. Was it her? Was it me? She wanted me to email her like never – and I wanted her to respond like once.
Surely there could be a happy medium in this joint process of letting go?
I asked my friend, Karen, also a lawyer, used to working with clients, also on the chatty-side, how she had handled it when her son, a year older than my daughter, had first gone off to college. She said she started off the same way I did. Emails to say hello, emails to tell her son what she was doing, sending articles of interest. And her son had not responded either. (and ironically or maybe not so ironically, Karen’s son was going to be a communications major in college.). But Karen came up with what I thought was a terrific compromise.
She couldn’t stop herself from sending emails. So she wouldn’t.
Her son didn’t want to write back. So he wouldn’t.
Instead, whenever Karen sent her son an email, her son promised to respond with an email that contained a single period. Karen would write – “Josh, how are you doing? Your Dad and I are fine. Sam seems to be enjoying sophomore year in high school. We hope you are having fun and studying hard. Love, Mom.”
And Josh would respond:
That’s it. One single period in the middle of the reply email that would prove that Josh was alive and well on Planet College. He just had to respond with one keystroke.
Surely I could convince my daughter to adopt this easy (for the kid) and comforting (for the parent) method of email reply?
But my daughter, an independent type from birth, would not budge.
“No, Mom, that is the dumbest idea I have ever heard. I am not going to do what Josh did! You just have to stop emailing me so much”. (a brief pause). Then she added, “If you promise to stop emailing me so much, maybe I will stay in touch more often.”
That was somewhere between blackmail and compromise. Not what I wanted. More of what she wanted. She was apparently doing much better at this letting go thing than I was. I had to learn to give up my over-communicator ways in order to let go. And my daughter didn’t have to read a book to figure that out.
After that rocky 1st semester fall, things got better. I emailed less. She emailed (slightly) more.
It’s not only children who grow up. Parents do too.