Bracing Myself for the Return of My College Freshman

Modern Parent
Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

In less than a week, my son will be coming home for the summer after completing his first year of college. He’s my youngest, so this isn’t my first time at the rodeo. While his freshman year was an experience entirely different than the ones his older sisters had — distinguished by regular COVID testing, quarantine dorms, remote-only classes, curfews, and limited opportunities for a social gathering — that first homecoming will undoubtedly be very similar.

Here’s what I remember from his sisters’ first summers home.

What I look forward to.

And what I dread.

I’ll be thrilled to see him.

I’ve barely seen my son since last August. Of course, we’ve kept in touch through cell phones, but texting and FaceTime are no substitute for the real thing. He was home for the holidays, but those went by too quickly, and I only made one brief road trip to visit him. He hasn’t been in our house for an extended period of time since last summer, and I’m giddy about having him home. I can’t wait for him to be sitting around our dinner table again. To ask him what he wants from the grocery store. To have his friends pop in and out until I have to go shopping again. And to sneak into his room while he’s sleeping and reminisce about days long gone — when he was a baby…a toddler…a little boy. Always underfoot and challenging us to keep up with his energy.

He won’t be as thrilled to see me.

I remember coming home from college that first summer myself over 30 years ago. Sometimes it feels like yesterday. It was an odd feeling. As excited as I was to see my parents, siblings, and high school friends…to sleep in my own bed…and get busy making money through my summer job, there was a strange and looming sense of not belonging anywhere. I had just said goodbye to my new college friends — the ones I’d lived with day in and day out for 9 months. They’d quickly become like family, and I was sad to let them go, even if it was only for the summer. The moment I walked through the door of my house, a state of limbo set in, and that’s where I remained for the remainder of the summer months until I headed back to school in the fall.

That insight was critical when my daughters came home from college. I could empathize with what they were going through, and I was intentional about treading lightly into their space those first few days. I held back on setting expectations for the summer, but only temporarily, giving them time to adjust to giving up some of the independence they’d gained while they were away at school.

I’ll do the same for my son, but I know it won’t be easy. My natural tendency is to kick back into full-on “Mom Mode.” But I know that’s not what he needs. And I’ll try not to take it personally when he pushes me away a bit. Honestly, that’ll be the hardest part.

I’ll be amazed by how much he’s changed — physically and emotionally.

Being a boy, these changes will be even more dramatic than they were with his sisters. His baby face won’t be as smooth, and it will undoubtedly have filled out thanks to all the starchy food and cheap beer he’s been consuming. Last fall, he looked as if he’d barely hit puberty, with only a few random pimples and whiskers here and there. I already know that his hair’s too long, that he’s shaving more frequently, and that he’s had several bad breakouts — not only because he’s maturing, but the face masks don’t help either. He’ll look more like a man, but I won’t let it startle me. I’ll always see him as my little boy in some way, after all.

His attitude will be different too. It’s a crapshoot how that will go. He’ll either bring home an air of confidence and self-assurance, or he’ll act like a rebellious prick, and we’ll need to put him in his place. Stay tuned.

I’ll quickly miss how tidy my house has been all year.

It won’t take long for shoes to clutter the hallway, laundry to pile up in the basement, and the smell of teenage boys to fill our upstairs. I’m not an exceptionally picky housekeeper either. I like to say my home looks “lived in.” But this past year has spoiled me. I like returning home from work to clean countertops and no dishes in the sink. That will change — quickly and dramatically. I’ll try not to care, reminding myself that it’s a small price to pay for having my baby back under our roof for a while.

I’ll spend more time shopping for food and cooking meals.

This is something else I’ll need to remember only temporarily. And it won’t really be as bad as I make it. I already know that trying to plan meals around a teenage boy and his moving target of a social calendar can be challenging. Yes, I’ll need more snacks in the house, and I’ll try to prepare different meals than the scrambled eggs and toast that my husband and I have grown accustomed to a couple of times a week. But takeout is just as easy to order for three as it is for two, so I’m not going to break my back trying to revert to how it used to be when all five of us lived together and our days revolved around ‘What’s for dinner?’ and ‘What time are we eating?’

I’ll feel conflicted about how to enforce the rules.

In this case, there’s no such thing as “third time’s a charm.” The conundrum that’s about to reign our household isn’t unfamiliar, but it remains a mystery. How do you impose and enforce rules upon someone who has pretty much lived according to his own terms for the last 9 months? I’d love to declare, “my house, my rules,” but it’s not that simple. Should it be? My son is 19. He’s a grown adult with voting rights. But he’s still living on my dime. Doesn’t that give me the right to ask him to do chores? And to respect the rules we’ve always laid out for him? Of course, it does. But that’s one of those things that’s great in theory but more difficult to put into practice consistently, especially when you’re so happy to have him home!

I’ll get increasingly aggravated, resulting in an eventual change of heart.

Wondering how late he’ll be out or if he’ll be calling last minute to say he’s sleeping at a friend’s house will make me crazy. Watching him sleep in the past noon will make me even crazier. (Hopefully, he’ll be working in the mornings, so that won’t be an issue. Right now, his summer work schedule is still up in the air). Waiting on the sound of the garage door will keep me from ever getting a sound night’s sleep. And having his friends in and out of the house all summer will be nice in the beginning, but it’ll grow old. I’ll begin craving the quiet of my empty nest again as the “cons” of having my son home for the summer will begin to outweigh the “pros.”

I’ll start looking at the calendar and counting down the days until he leaves for school again.
Then I’ll feel bad for having those thoughts.
It’s a vicious cycle.

And once he’s gone, I’ll miss him all over again. It reminds me a bit of one of my favorite children’s books — If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff.

But this story has an ultimate end. It might not be this summer or even next. But eventually, our son won’t be coming home for months at a time. Just like with our daughters, his visits will get shorter and shorter until they only exist on weekends and holidays — and only if we’re lucky.

So, regardless of all the shoes in the hallway…all the snacks we’ll go through in the upcoming weeks…and all the late nights spent worrying…I’m pledging to enjoy the hell out of the time I’ll have with my son this summer. He’s grown up into a nice young man with a bright future ahead of him. I couldn’t be prouder.

But please check back with me next week to see if I feel any different!

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