Diary of A Clingy Mom: Surviving My First-Born’s Freshman Year in College - Part 1
How many times have you felt like giving yourself a high five because you felt like you were the best mom? How many times have you had days when you felt like you were the worst mom? Yep, we all feel it at some point. It's ok. Actually, I firmly believe it's healthy for us to have these feelings. That's what allows us to learn and grow to be better parents.
For those of you who know me personally, you know I’m hard on myself. For those of you who don’t, allow me to be candid and vulnerable about how I perceive myself. I have to be successful in everything I do. Even if it means staying up until 2 am working on a contract or researching and learning new and improved ways to do something, achieving is part of my personal narrative and it’s what I draw energy from. Having said that, I’m not the competitive type (except for with myself) and I don’t strive for excellence to impress anyone. I just love the challenge of seeing just how far I can get when I put my mind to something. So naturally, I approach parenting the same way.
When I had my first child, I remember holding that perfect, fragile little being in such awe of her perfection. Like the singularity that burst open into the universe we know today, she was packed with the energy to light up the world. I remember promising myself that I would protect and guide her no matter what. I would give this empty canvas of a gift that has been given to us the best of everything. I promised myself that I would never steer her wrong till the day I die. There was no way I was going to let the success of the most important project of my life be left up to chance.
So, just for fun, humor me and try to guess if I was going to be fine with my kids going ahead and making their own decisions. You guessed it, I was not. What? You want to go out with your friends when you have a game in the morning? You want to take up a new hobby while that extra time could be used to take your calculus grade from an A to an A+? You want to take a vacation with your friend’s family where I won’t know what you’re doing every hour of the day? I don’t think so, kiddo! It didn’t sound over-protective or clingy to me. I’m aware of the things teenagers have access to these days and I wasn’t going to drop the ball. Especially as she was about to dive into arguably the most tumultuous and trying time in one’s life.
July 1st of 2017, I dropped my first born, Neaka (pronounced: Nee-ka), off at college for her Freshman year as a student-athlete. This was the first time she had ever, in her 18 years of life, lived away from us. This was a huge change for our family - it happened way too fast. I thought I had so much time with her and here she was, starting a new chapter in her life.
Of course, in preparation for this new journey, I had to make sure everything was perfect for her. Since her permanent dorm would not be available for move in until the fall, she would be in a temporary dorm for the summer session of classes and training. You know what that meant: she needed summer dorm decorations and permanent dorm decorations. Yes, I was that mother. As she was going through orientation, I unpacked all her belongings, got her bed made up, hung her clothes, rearranged the furniture and decorated the room. Oh yes, John made sure she was hooked up to the internet and the printer. Everything was perfect. The plan was for me to return in 5 weeks with the remainder of her belongings to help her move into her permanent dorm. How was I going to survive 5 weeks without seeing Neaka? How was SHE going to get through all the mazes of living on her own? As each thought entered my mind, I became more and more nervous. As the realization of no longer having control over every aspect of her life began to settle in, I found myself having mini mental/emotional attacks.
I don’t know who had a harder time with the goodbyes - me or her. Nevertheless, I flew back home to Texas feeling like a part of my heart had been cut off. The worry of if she was going to be ok was overwhelming. For the most part, she did just fine. Yes, we had our moments, like the text I received after the first practice/training telling me she didn’t know if she could make it physically, or the call at 11:30 pm saying she was homesick and just wanted to sleep in her own bed just one more night. Those are moments that tore at my heart and as an overprotective mother, I felt helpless being so far away. But I had to be strong for her. As much as every atom of my being pulled me to go there and make it all better, I knew this was an opportunity for growth and I had to let her go through it.
I made sure we spoke multiple times throughout the day. If she was struggling with something I was more than willing to share my thoughts, and strongly suggest what she should probably do. If she pushed back, I kept pushing more.
Then I received the call. Uh-oh, I knew it. I just KNEW from the moment my phone rang that it was the call that I had subconsciously tried to avoid/prevent. “Mom, you and Dad need to give me space”. What? Space? Are you kidding me? You live 9 HOURS away! How much space could she possibly want? I immediately changed the conversation and avoided any further discussion on that matter. Needless to say, John and I were crushed. After two entire days of her not calling us, (I clearly wasn’t going to call her), I couldn’t do it anymore. I sent her a text and asked if she remembered who we were. Her response: “lol, of course, mom! I love you guys. Can we talk in the morning?”. Morning? Have I to wait until tomorrow to talk? Grrrrr.
The conversation I had with Neaka that next morning was the most eye-opening, humbling conversation I think I have ever had with her. Don’t get me wrong. John and I have always had a good relationship with her, however, what we didn’t realize was that we, inadvertently, were excessively controlling her and she was suffocating. She reminded us how she was 18 and struggling to find herself because we were constantly involved in so many aspects of her life. It was like a splash of cold water on my face. How could this be happening? It was just yesterday that I was nursing her. It was just yesterday when she got her braces on. Fear had turned me into an overprotective mom. The fear of not correcting unwanted behavior and making them forever ill-mannered. The belief that if I let them have that extra cookie they would be unhealthy eaters for the rest of their lives. If I let them go to sleepovers, they would forever want to be away from us. What did I do? There are several terms out there for moms like me. Let’s see, “Helicopter Mom”, “Tiger Mom”, “Guilt Mom”. That last one was one I never realized I was, until just recently.
During that phone call I was grateful we were able to talk through some of the ways we were stressing her out. That’s when it came out that she was feeling too much pressure from John and me. Pressure rooted in the thought that she was indebted to us for helping her as much as we do. We were unknowingly using guilt to have her do as we asked. The idea that after all we had done for her, the least she could do was obey her parents. That’s where all this talk of giving her space came from.
I have to say, I was proud of her for speaking up about her feelings. I’m also proud of myself (and shocked) that I was able to take this criticism of myself so well. I knew there wasn’t room for pride or arguments back and forth. This was my baby opening her heart to me and telling me how I can be better. I was all ears!
As I look back I can confidently say all John and I have ever done for her was out of pure love so she could be happy. We were so afraid of all the “what if’s” that we kept a close eye on every part of her life. What I didn’t know was although it was done with the best intentions, it was such a disservice to her.
After much consultation and reflection with John, we decided to immediately step back. Will she have the opportunity to find herself now? Absolutely. Will she make mistakes? Probably. Will she know to call Mom and Dad should she need help with anything? You bet. But how would I cope with the loss of control that, at the core of it, just felt like I was getting further and further away from her. Letting go is an art. You can’t expect to get over it or try to distract yourself from it. What I do is try to let the feeling go through me. I feel it in all its glory and let it remind me that the sting of loneliness that can sometimes be felt as your children get older is only a reminder of the qualities you’ve instilled in them that allow them to bloom so beautifully - even if it is a whole 9 hours away.
Hugs, Mama K