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The Truth About College — And Life by Amy

This post originally appeared on my blog

We recently made the drive from Solana Beach to Northern California to get our oldest daughter Sophie ready to start her second year at Berkeley. This year felt very different from last year. This year the car was full of stuff to make a starter home, a first apartment, a personal space.

This year, after a less-than-perfect dorm experience, Sophie was headed for a two bedroom apartment she would share with a friend. This move felt more permanent than the move to a dorm which hundreds — maybe thousands — of kids had occupied before her and would continue to occupy after her brief albeit unpleasant time there. This year she was actually living somewhere, not just staying somewhere. This place was her first home that wasn’t my home. This year she and Paul said a blessing as we hung a mezuzah on her bedroom door, a mezuzah she had been saving since her Bat Mitzvah for her first apartment. This year we would buy and assemble furniture, hang art on the walls, stock food in the refrigerator, fill her space with stuff for living a life. Her life. Independent from her life as a member of our family. She was ready, but was I?

During her senior year in high school, I was overwhelmed with the thought of Sophie leaving, never living in our house again.  Once we took her up to school, that feeling left me. This year, leaving her apartment with all her stuff in place, it returned. It is ominous.

People who have traveled this road before me say, “You won’t be sad when you see your child is so happy.” That may be true, and “sad” isn’t really the word I would use to describe my complicated set of emotions surrounding this life shift in our family. It is too simple a word. But what if your child isn’t “so happy?” I cannot believe I am the only mother of a child who wasn’t “so happy” her first year of college. At many times, however, I felt like the only mother talking honestly about it.

Shortly after the move up, while we were all back home for the last few weeks of summer, Sophie included, I reconnected with a woman I had not seen in several years. She is the mother of three, and her youngest had just left for the first year away at college. She and I started catching up, and when she asked about Sophie’s first year away, I hesitated, and gave a short, honest answer which wasn’t the positive pat answer which I have found most mothers give in a social setting like this. But then again, I am not most mothers. She immediately leaned in, touched my arm, thanked me for my honesty and revealed her own daughter’s less than ideal start to college life. She urged me to write about it, to encourage other mothers and girls to be open and honest. To tell the truth. She is convinced, as am I, that if more people were open about their feelings, their insecurities, their failures, their true life experiences rather than what we call in our family the “holiday card version of life,” we wouldn’t all feel so alone in our struggles.

I remember years ago, when another friend of mine was struggling with being a new mother, I gave her an honest account of my struggles with the same situation, for which she was grateful. She often still mentions how much that conversation meant to her at the time. I had since embraced motherhood, clearly loved and cared for my children, but my recounting of my struggles was not the most flattering image of me. In order to comfort and ease my friend’s pain, I put that aside, something I often do for and about myself when I feel a situation calls for that. I have been less revealing about my children, in general, to protect their privacy and their frailties, but I have a feeling they are as open and honest about themselves, much like I am, in their own circles.

I mention it now, here, because perhaps Sophie wouldn’t have struggled as much as she did with what was probably a not-so-great year, but also a not-so- terrible year, and not all that unusual of a year either. Maybe if she had had a realistic image of the first year of college, complete with some of the messy, unpleasant details of all the emotions that can befall a college freshman, she — and I — would have taken it in stride a bit more than we did. Maybe she wouldn’t have felt there was something wrong with her, when really there wasn’t. I imagine more people have had experiences like hers than like the Hollywood movie version of college. If the small sampling of the people I have had honest conversations with are any indication, Sophie’s year was more the norm than the exception — something Sophie and I have both come to learn, in hindsight, now that the year is over.

So, to all the people in my life who have been open and honest with me about the initial pain of breast feeding, the difficulties of being in a long marriage, the betrayal to expect by my body during menopause, or warned me about the erratic nature of the waves of grief, I thank you. And to those of you who ask, “How’s your mom doing?” or “How is college going?” be ready for an honest answer. Because, unlike Garrison Keillor, I do not reside in Lake Wobegon, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average.”

Read Amy’s feelings about Sophie leaving for college here.


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