How did you stay close to your kid when they left the nest?
July 10, 2021 12:52 PM   Subscribe

My (only) kid is going to be leaving for college in a few weeks. How to navigate this?

I'll pat myself on my back and say that I've done a good job so far of nurturing a healthy close relationship—meaning, we're close and he'll confide in me (I'm the mom), and discuss easy & fun things and also heavy & emotional things, and yet we still have what I think is a healthy level of separation as he grows more independent. I've worked hard to thread that needle. And of course I acknowledge that we have arrived at a natural developmental stage where we'll no longer be in each other's lives on a daily basis.

Part of my confusion now is because of how I was raised—not very close, emotionally, to my parents/step-parents. I would not have dreamed of having intimate conversations with any of them, at any age. When I left for school I hardly looked back. I didn't stay in close touch with any of my parental figures. Not on a weekly basis, nor even on a monthly basis. Except for very short periods, I never lived at home after departing for my freshman year.

So my relationship with my child is already very different from that (and I'm so grateful for it!), but I don't have a model for moving forward. I'd love your guidance, ideas, anecdotes, etc. And I promise this is all rooted in wanting to develop a healthy continuing relationship with my kid, not a clingy, helicopter-parent type of one.
posted by BlahLaLa to Human Relations (26 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
How far away is college? Will he be able to come home regularly or will you be able to visit? My experience is that during the college years kids tend to really pull back even when they love and like their parents just because they are so busy. And especially if they become busy with romantic relationships. And then after college is sort of when they want to resume rituals like weekly lunch or scheduled FaceTime.
posted by MadMadam at 1:21 PM on July 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Have you thought of asking your child? I work with people of university age and a lot of them are really kind and connected to their parents and from all indications enjoy staying in touch. It might be a good conversation to have so that he starts to think about what he wants and also what he wants to put into the relationship too.
posted by warriorqueen at 1:25 PM on July 10, 2021 [13 favorites]

Best answer: My husband had a very close relationship with his mom, he went to college across the country. He has a weekly phone call with his parents, starting in college (every Sunday) that continues to this day. A weekly check-in is nice to keep involved and informed, and then deep conversations can still happen at breaks.

Also his parents had an open invitation to pay for flights home whenever he wanted, as well as an open invite to join them on vacations, but he was never forced. When we started dating/living together that invitation was extended to me so it was never a question of leaving me behind if he didn't want to, if that makes sense.

I really appreciate this question because I also have a somewhat distant relationship with my parents and it's interesting to see the variety of work that goes into the parent/adult child relationship.
posted by muddgirl at 1:30 PM on July 10, 2021 [20 favorites]

Best answer: Asynchronous texting or messaging, plus video calls when they want them. And making sure that they know that you'd like to hear from them somewhat regularly, but that it doesn't need to be constant - me and my kids may have quick conversations when one of us actually needs info or is feeling chatty, but other conversations may occur over multiple days or weeks. Also, memes or articles or things that are shared interested or beliefs or things you might each be interested in.

Honestly, though, this is an extension of what occurred when we all lived together. And my four kids and I all have a pretty similar relationship to what you describe.
posted by stormyteal at 1:30 PM on July 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

It’s going to be one thing right now, and a whole different thing 5 years from now, no matter what. So try to keep a big picture connection in mind even if he blows off phone calls for a few months in a row.

In my early adulthood, my parents helped me more than I wanted in some ways and less than I wanted in others, but my mom was really good at never actually pushing me away, even when I did things I know she didn’t like (or assumed she didn’t like). In retrospect, a ton of the conflict between us was me assuming her reactions and pulling away—including a year where I didn’t talk to her at all (I was going through a divorce at 25 and was very ashamed of it).

Now that I’m a whole-ass grownup and have a much more adult-to-adult relationship with my mom, we both make a point to talk on the phone once a week, which is just about right for us to have 40 minutes of chit chat, and then we spend time together in person every other month or so. It would not have been possible for me to come back and be close with her again if she had made a huge deal or guilt tripped me when I pulled away for those middle years.
posted by itesser at 1:34 PM on July 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

Dad wrote me brief letters, once a week, for about a year after I graduated high school. They didn't say much, but I was always delighted to receive them. I probably responded to about 1 letter in 10.

Grandmom has called about once a month, rain or shine, for most of my adult life. "Call me" in her Philly accent has filled so many answering machines and voicemails, it's permanently embedded in my brain. She has some sort of internal or external timer that goes off at almost exactly 20 minutes. I know I can call her and not have to worry about spending hours on the phone. We talk about the weather, what everyone's been up to, and how I am still doing just fine even though I am the person furthest from her corner of the Overton Window.

I keep in better touch with my dad and grandmom than just about anyone else.
posted by aniola at 1:38 PM on July 10, 2021 [4 favorites]

I can tell you what my mom did, but I don't know that this would work with most people. She's 85, I'm 54, so although there was email then, I don't know anyone in the mid-1980s who was using it. [Now, you have texting and social media and Facetime, and those could all work, but there's something about the way my mom did things that seems better.] She wrote me real US-mail letters a few times a week and told me the random things going on at home, in the family and in the community, the kinds of things that aren't at all interesting, but that keep you feeling connected.

I had a letter in my postal box at least twice week, always signed with her now-famous (among my circle) stick figure drawing of herself -- tall, big boobs, big hair, big feet. Sometimes she'd draw shorter hair with a caption about how she wasn't sure about her recent hair cut. For most people, texts and emails and Insta/FB selfies have made real postal letters seem like antiques, but even though I talk to my mother (multiple times) daily, I still get envelopes with clippings and coupons and a funny stick-figure note. These never made me feel stifled or overly-parented as a college kid or young adult, but rather just made me feel like I was loved without having to do much, specifically, in return.

She also sent care packages, with non-perishable foods I liked, or things she thought I could share with my dorm mates (like she sent extras in my lunch in first grade, to help me make friends), and people in my international dorm, whose parents were halfway around the world, would circle the box every month or so to see what random and wacky things my mom would include. It wasn't about bribing me for maintaining a connection; it was her natural love language, communication/food/amusement.

But we also talked every day. I know, nobody talks on the phone anymore. But we did. Every night at 6p, before I went to the dining hall. It divided the day between class and nighttime, and was just like how we'd talk when I'd come home from school, when it was just the two of us on a snowy evening. It wasn't an obligation, per se, but it was an expectation on both our parts that we could download our day to one another. Having that in young adulthood can be both necessary and fraught, because any sign of judgment on the part of the parent will make a kid/ young adult pull back. But that was my safe place, and when things weren't so great, I was more inclined to open up and even "open the Mom Encyclopedia" as we say in my family. That talk before dinner put a period at the end of bad day and an exclamation point at the end of a good one.

Learning how to be an adult is tough, and it's natural to pull away. Even as I fought with my mom the entire summer before I left for college over stupid things (the color of my comforter? what kind of clothes hangers?), I'd remind her at the end of every fight, "This is normal. This is me asserting my independence. You and I both know that, no matter how angry we are in the moment." And then we'd laugh at the meta-ness of it. But having an awareness that this pull and push made the emotions normal, and talking about it made things easier.

The point is that we never became strangers to one another because she wrote every few days, we talked every day, and because she's cool as hell. We still fought over ridiculous things (and still do), but I can count on my fingers the number of days in my life (well, since summer camp a age 11) when we haven't spoken. (I should note, my father was a jerk and so she and I were well-bonded because of that for my whole life. Also, literally anyone who knows her considers my mom the funniest person they actually know, and light, silly humor goes a long way toward maintaining a connection.)

Finally, from childhood, my mother has always said, "I love you and I'm proud of you before you even get out of bed in the morning." It doesn't mean she agrees with my choices, but it means she loves me unconditionally, and I don't have to live up to her expectations of what I should do or who I should be. Don't think I don't know how lucky I am. So if you can make your kid feel that lucky, you and your kid will be just fine.

Maybe show this thread to your kid and ask, "Kid, what works for you?" You'll constantly be adjusting for the next 50+ years, so take it one day at a time.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 1:40 PM on July 10, 2021 [33 favorites]

Congratulations for breaking the spell, as we say in the corner of my family where we have gotten as far as you have.
In my experience, our young people are so different from ourselves that our experience doesn't work -- in a good way. we have to handle things as we go along. The good thing is, they love us and trust us. The difficult thing is that they are finding themselves in different phases (I have two kids, my brother and cousin have two each as well, we all keep in touch).
It's a balance, and that balance depends on the individuals. One of my kids has been very independent for years, but in a weird way, it is more important for them that I use phrases like "I love you", than for the other sibling who is still living at home and may never move out since their partner also loves our family life. This is not as weird as it sounds, since we are not American.
I think that for you, it can be a good rule to call once a week, even if it just to say hello and talk about the weather. Regular phone calls take out the drama of it. If they don't pick up the phone, don't worry and don't call again before the next week.
I was very close with my grandparents, and I have all the letters we wrote one another. That might be weird for a young person today, but maybe mails can work?
posted by mumimor at 1:42 PM on July 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

Our daughter wants to video chat every night. We've actually had to insist that we cut it back to 2-3 times a week. We send her a care package every couple of weeks, even if it is just some Little Debbie snack cakes. She's an only child, so she's probably more attached to us than is really good for her, so we don't encourage weekend visits. Covid meant that she ended up at home for most of the second half of her freshman year and six weeks early this spring, so we haven't actually had a full academic year with her away.
posted by briank at 1:48 PM on July 10, 2021

Response by poster: Loving these answers so far. And to clarify, Kid is going to school all the way across the country + in a place that's hard to get to, so we will only plan on seeing him during the longer school breaks.
posted by BlahLaLa at 1:59 PM on July 10, 2021

My son and I have always had a happy relationship, but he was always a pretty independent critter. Even so, when he went away to college at age 18, he called home way more often than I ever expected - I would even say a lot. It was also very important to him that I go to parents' weekend at his college. I think keeping in contact with your kid, and your kid keeping in contact with you, will happen organically and that you really won't have to put forth much conscious effort at all to keep your relationship happy. At least that was definitely my experience.
posted by SageTrail at 2:07 PM on July 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

When my middle child was 17¾, she left home for college overseas. I undertook to write her a regular letter, like, on paper, with a stamp. That was quite retro for 2011 but I think it worked partly by recognising an asymmetry. I was cozy on my patriarchal sofa while she was off fighting dragons in that dark world and wide. She didn't have to reply and we had plenty of other comms channels. Bonus: we both have an exactingly detailed record of what was going on at home during that year of inventing herself. On review: I am not aniola's Dad.
posted by BobTheScientist at 2:07 PM on July 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

My dad calls me every day, often more than once a day, frequently when he's in the car or at the grocery store, etc. I sometimes pretend to be annoyed by it (to others -- not him) but I LOVE IT. We often have the same conversation about 50 times, and it is so soothing and not weird at all just to call to "check-in." We often talk about the mundane stuff I'm thinking about (are my kids getting enough protein? I'm thinking of getting bangs) and he seems to care. I hear of the similar stuff in his life too.

Not sure if your son would be annoyed but for me, it is amazing that he thinks of me so often. And when (ahem pandemic) we don't see each other for over a year it is not at all weird to pick up where we left off.
posted by heavenknows at 2:10 PM on July 10, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: We took our kids to school, even across the country, went to parent orientation, and helped them move in. It really helped to have a visual of where they were, who their roommates were, and how far away the cafeteria was, etc. My parents did the same for me. I felt a lot more connected because of having done that and it made conversations easier about “what’s going on with you?”

N’ing frequent phone calls. And always being available to talk through a problem, no matter what time of night it is. I can’t count the number of tearful 2 a.m. phone calls we took. Hey, it was only 11 p.m. her time, right? Never let them make big decisions in February. February is bad at school.

If you are starting off with a good relationship, and it sounds like you are, you’ll be fine. Your hard work will pay off and you’ll have a fine adult-friend-kid someday.
posted by SLC Mom at 2:29 PM on July 10, 2021 [4 favorites]

My parents asked me to call once a week, same as with my sister, and I'd get a call from them Sunday afternoon if I hadn't reached out all weekend.

Back when things phone companies charged long distance for even relatively short distances, my sister and I (at two different colleges in the same city) called my parents using an 800 number they'd set up.
posted by Sunburnt at 2:35 PM on July 10, 2021

I think the right amount of contact varies considerably from family to family, so there is no one right answer, just what's right for you. For me and my daughter, it was typically a long call once a week, occasional emails or texts or letters or packages, and big-news, melt-down, or miss-you calls as needed. She definitely knew classmates who were in touch a lot more or a lot less.

More important, I think, is having an ongoing open dialogue about establishing a pattern of contact that feels right for both of you. We told each other, in words, that we wanted to do the work to stay close and then regularly checked in with each other to confirm that our schedule of contact was meeting both our needs. Then you figure it out as you go along.

She's in her 30s now, living across the country. Early in the pandemic, she told me she thought we needed to talk every day and we changed our pattern and it was a lifeline for both of us. Recently the daily calls just naturally tailed off to our old weekly pattern and that's also been fine. When I miss her sometime I stalk her metafilter activity (hi baby!)
posted by rekrap at 4:34 PM on July 10, 2021 [3 favorites]

I didn't chat on the phone a lot with my mom, but she sent me care packages probably every 8-10 weeks. Those were well-liked and appreciated. Kids now can get more of what they want easily from amazon, but a package from mom still tells your kid that you're thinking of them. And it usually will be followed by a call from them to let you know they got it.
posted by hydra77 at 9:14 PM on July 10, 2021

For me and my children, as they got older and went off to school, we transitioned from a strictly parent child relationship to more of a friendship. I will always be their father and parent there for them in a pinch or to offer support, but we starred talking about our shared interests more. My daughter went to the same college as I did and we talked a lot about school and the school's sports teams.

Each child is different. One son was in a military college and he is much more formal and serious. We have to tease him to lighten up. I learned all I could about his school and his daily routine and asked him a lot of questions about that in our weekly phone call. I also would text him random things not even expecting a response.

My other child is easy to talk to for me because we share a lot of similar interests. He also likes a lot of my music. We video call each other randomly about once a week or 3 times every 2 weeks.

For each of them, I had to tailor my approach to meet their personality. I also took a step back bc my ex became clingy and would text them several times a day and I knew they resented the over bearing ness of it.

I also made a point of visiting them at their school each year and now wherever they live. They are spread out around the country.

I think the key is to know your child, let them dictate a little bit of how they want to interact with you, also to know that the relationship is dynamic and will change slowly over time.
posted by AugustWest at 10:56 PM on July 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

My 26 year old didn't want a lot of contact the first couple years on her own. But the past couple of years we talk once a week and text and Snapchat and use Duo for video calls. She's always been independent and somewhat private so I really attempted to let go after she moved out and let her come to me most of the time. I let her know I cared and wanted updates but no pressure. I took her to lunch or asked if she wanted to hike if she did call. Every dynamic is different. This worked for us.
posted by DixieBaby at 7:32 AM on July 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I wanted to add a couple things yesterday, but got abruptly interrupted and hurried out of the house, so I'm back.

Even if you've had a good relationship, where it's been built that they feel comfortable sharing details with you, be careful not to push and not to try to control. Don't message them unprompted every day, but once or twice a week is fine, especially if it's randomness, like I said - stuff that they can comment on or not, if they have time to. Sometimes, in our case, the response may just be whatever we have the main emoji set on. (For example, my oldest (25) and I've had our Messenger one set on snowman for years...) It might mean ok, it might mean I agree, it might just mean I see you and love you... but he, especially, uses it at a shorthand acknowledgement.

And make sure they know you don't expect them to respond immediately, not like you would when they were a minor in your home. If there's something critical (usually financial aid stuff or something similar) that needs a reasonably quick response, we let each other know that when we send the message. (Honestly, though - that's usually him asking me - lately, it's resumes and cover letters, now that he's done with school.)

Anyways. Good luck with your kiddo.
posted by stormyteal at 9:11 AM on July 11, 2021

Best answer: What we did for our only child was to treat the college departure as not actually a huge deal even though we were devastated. We dropped the kid off with their possessions and left while the other parents in their dorm unit were still cleaning every surface and setting up the refrigerator and the microwave and hanging the curtains. (Yes, I cried quite a bit of the way home and we got a kitten the next day. Yes, I missed my kid terribly). The second year we made it even more minimal, dropping them off and clearing out.

They told us that their classmates often complained about their parents and didn't seem to like them because the parents were so intrusive and pushy. That seemed to surprise my kid, who was used to liking their parents.

We sent the occasional care package and let the kid call us. They came home for Thanksgiving and Christmas and summer. The first two years were hair-raising; they told us all about most of it because we didn't pry and because we all had established openness a very long time before. And though there were things about college I wish hadn't happened, that's pretty much normal.

Now twenty years later, they live ten blocks away from us with their spouse and the grandchild and we see each other all the time.
posted by Peach at 9:37 AM on July 11, 2021 [3 favorites]

My parents more or less let me set the frequency and type of communication. I like being independent and I hate feeling like I have to do something, so this really helped make calling home something I do because I wanted to, not because I felt like I had to or I'd get nagged about it. I call about once a week, usually at the same day/time, but they don't bug me if it's longer than a week, and I give them a heads up if I'm super busy so they know.

If my mom wants to talk to me and it's not urgent, she'll usually text and ask if there's a good time to chat today. Partly because I'm in a different country and time zones/needing wifi for calls, but also I'm waaaay more happy to talk if I have a little warning and can finished whatever I'm doing at the moment.

My parents did a good job of letting me know that they want to know about my life AND they don't give me a hard time about doing things they worry about or disagree with. I went on a roadtrip and didn't tell my mom until after, and she gently said she knew she couldn't tell me what to do, but she'd prefer to know ahead of time. Also, I have occasionally dropped a ton of drama on them unexpectedly and they responded calmly even though they hadn't known about any of it before, and that was really, really helpful. I share a lot more about my life than I expected to because while my parents will discuss my decisions with me and I can tell they disagree sometimes, they pretty much never try to convince me to change them or bug me about choices they disagree with.
posted by raeka at 9:46 AM on July 11, 2021 [2 favorites]

He’s your only child and it sounds like you have a close relationship. He’s moving thousands of miles from his family and (I’m assuming here) his friends. He will probably want to have frequent communication with someone who knows him well.

When my daughter and only child was growing up, our dinner conversations were a review of her day. I think this is pretty typical when there’s only one child. When she left for college, I honestly don’t remember if we agreed to daily calls or if we both just wanted to continue our dinnertime conversations, but she’s now 23 and we still touch base daily, even if it’s just a quick text to say “all’s well – TTYT.” For the most part, she initiates our phone calls and if I know she has plans the following day I’ll tell her not to worry if she can’t call because I don’t want her to ever feel like she has to cut her plans short so she can call me.

So I say, encourage daily check-in through calls, video chats, text or whatever he needs but don’t require it or make him feel guilty when he can’t. This might sound stalkery but I also follow my daughter on Instagram, with her permission. I rarely comment but it reassures me greatly to see what she’s up to and gives us a springboard for our conversations (as if we need it).
posted by kbar1 at 12:07 PM on July 11, 2021

Seconding asynchronous communication - your child is learning how to do a whole bunch of things all at once - so letters and packages that they can digest at leisure allow them to have a refresh when they need it.

Time zones mean that it is probably best to give advance notice of when to talk.

Check out if there are any hamper retailers in the area - a basket of fancy baked goods never goes astray.
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 12:30 AM on July 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have one kid that just graduated and one who has one semester left. One kid was a flight away, the other is a 4 hour drive. We treated both the same.

Once a week (usually weekend day), we facetime. They usually text in advance to see if hubby and I are available. Facetime is nice because you can see how they look even if you don't have a lot of time to talk. Mostly it is just a quick check-in, but lots of times, it's more.

Because of their schedule, one thing that we do that I think is helpful is lots of texting. I regularly text simple things like "good morning" and frequently send pics. It could be pics of the dog or something in the neighborhood. Just simple stuff. They respond similarly. It's not forced and we still feel close. I feel like we seek eachother out because we want to, not because we have to.

I had some reservations when my one kid wanted to go so far for college, but I'm glad both of them went away for college. We have twins, so it was a lot to adjust to both of them being gone at once. But in the end, it was so good for all of us. Hoping for the same with you and your family.
posted by jraz at 6:27 AM on July 12, 2021

Response by poster: I could have marked them all best answer. Thank you.
posted by BlahLaLa at 1:48 PM on August 10, 2021

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