Conversations with the Mother of a 12th Grader
When I was a new mother, it seemed like there was a finite timeline placed on the parenting experience, concluding decisively 18 years later with COLLEGE. At the time, that seemed like an eternity away. Now that it’s quite suddenly here, I am deeply aware that motherhood does not end when they leave for college, nor do I want it to end. As I sort through how best to help my daughter navigate the college application process, I find that the well-meaning curiosity of the people in my life tends to heighten my anxiety and, frankly, my anger at the process. On a daily basis, the questions go kind of like this:
- So, got those applications in?
- No?! She’s not applying Early Action?
- Isn’t the deadline soon?
- Where does she want to go?
- Oh. Pause. So, she decided not to apply to Harvard?
- Or: Oh. Pause. Wow. What’s her safety school?
- Where are her friends applying?
- How’d she do on her SAT’s?
- What does she want to major in?
- Somehow we all manage to pay for college!
They are not satisfactory conversations, and I don’t help. I put on my cheerful and confident persona – making jokes or giving curt answers – masking the intense anxiety I have and minimizing the potential for a genuine conversation that is honest and connecting. My anxiety prevents me from revealing how I really feel, which goes kind of like this:
- How much should I help? Should I sit down next to her until she’s done and presses the submit button or should I let her struggle with completing the applications on her own?
- How high should she reach? There’s so much pressure to apply to top tier schools, but what if she doesn’t get in? Or worse, what if she does get in, but we can’t afford it? I am jealous of and angry at the more affluent families who are legacy’d in to the top tier schools and have the money to pay for it.
- Where will she be happy? What if, like me, she has trouble adjusting and her confidence wavers?
- What if she has little trouble adjusting and doesn’t miss me?
- What if she gets in somewhere far away and wants to go? Do we let her? I am going to miss her. Should I tell her how much I am going to miss her?
- Should I advise her to be pragmatic and follow a path that pays well or should I advise her to follow her heart? Can one do both?
- How are we going to pay for college? When do I get to start working less hard?
- I’ve go to do this again with my son in 3 years?!
- I can’t believe 18 years have gone by. I am afraid I have squandered these years with my own career ambition, short-changing my children and my time with them.
- When I left home for college, I never returned. What if she never returns? May she and I do a better job at creating a loving and connected adult mother-daughter bond.
If I were more open with how I feel about the college application process, I imagine that the questions could go more like this:
- Hey, how are you and your daughter handling the stress of applying to college?
- It’s okay that she has no idea where she wants to go what she wants to do. She’s only 17!
- You must be so proud and excited for her!
- How’s your husband doing? This must be hard for him too. Are you able to take advantage of the opportunity to spend more time together and reestablish some closeness in your marriage now that it’s not all about the kids?
- Yeah, finding the balance between letting her do it at her pace and nagging her is challenging.
- It’s hard to let them go. I cried a lot too.
- You’ve raised an amazing girl. You are a good mom. She is happy and will do well.
- She still needs you and loves you. Your relationship will evolve to a new place. You are not your parents.
- Your son is different and you will be different when he goes through the process.
- What a time of transition! What next?!
Indeed, what next? I will tell her I am going to miss her. I will help her as much as she will let me. Together, as a family, we will find a school that makes sense for her. We will help her leave home. And we will welcome her back home when she needs, or just wants, our love.