December 7, 2017
In a theater exercise at the beginning of this semester, I sat across from a friend, both of us cross-legged on the carpet. “Today,” said I, “I miss my mother.” “Today, you miss your mother,” she repeated. “Today, I miss my mother,” I said again in accordance with the exercise. Then it was her turn: “Today,” she sighed and looked at me, “I miss my mother.” Me: “Today you miss your mother.” She: “Today, we miss our mothers.”
Everyone has parents, and somehow, we are all carrying some part of the two people that brought us into the world. Yet within the unifying features of birth and parentage, the relationships between every child and their set of parents are as different as all the thought-connecting synapses that populate our minds. Present, gone, assertive, hands-off, adopted or far away, whatever adjective best describes where we stand with moms and dads, we are forever bound to them — if sometimes only through blood.
Complex as every parent-child connection is, college further deepens the intrigue of the parental relationship as the once hatchlings leave the nest for the first time as freshman and invariably return to the nest for the last time. We often speak of this liminal space as the arena where children become adults, where the ideas, values or beliefs of a family are either integrated into a lifestyle or abandoned. But whatever choices are made, the position of “daughter” or “son” remains fixed, and however the relationship changes, it will not go away.
Over the last few weeks I have been asking people about their parents and how the transitional life of a college student has shifted thoughts, feelings or words towards parents. How has the distance between Wheaton and home — be it blocks or borders — opened their eyes to reconsider family? While the geographical remove is the most obvious manifestation of change, the effects of simply “not being home” have very wide ramifications. For many of us, distance provides a liberation from reminders, various dress codes or conversational taboos, giving us a sense of identity beyond our household or family. How do parental relationships adapt to these changes?
For one thing, removal from home gives most students an unexpected appreciation for their parents. Even after a few weeks as a freshman, I concluded that my mother showed great foresight in how she encouraged and nagged me to prepare for life, and that I will probably always be late to arrive at such realizations.. Her prophetic wisdom, which in the moment had seemed obtuse, proved acutely practical and true. Others are struck by the sacrifices their parents make to connect with them while they are away. Alyssa Stadtlander, a senior, related to me that sometimes, when insomnia closes in late at night, her mom will pray for her over the phone even at such an otherwise ungodly hour.
Technology provides the possibility of constant and continued connection with rudimentary family interactions. Laurel Bacote, a freshman, told me that “once our entire family had Instagram, messaging through the app was one of our primary ways of communicating with each other. We would send each other things that we would see throughout the day. … It’s a great way of seeing what’s going on in their minds.” Many students habitually peer through the windows of screens and smartphones to reconnect with their families. For more than a few, it is a Sunday ritual as regular as churchgoing — and for good reason. The sanctuary of home can still have a potency, however limited, through pixels and speakers.
Nevertheless, the limitations can be painful. “I call my mom every day to say ‘How are you? How’s the house? I’m good here, here’s what I did today.’” says junior McKenna Biedebach, reflecting on connecting with her parents while at school. “I always know what my parents are doing and where they are because they do the same thing every single day. But when I go home it’s hard to talk to them about my life and what I think about [broader] issues and how I’m specifically doing.” Although radio signals can update moms, dads and children of whereabouts and actions, they cannot communicate real presence, which sometimes proves a more difficult interaction. “It’s hard to feel comfortable at home after working so much,” Biedebach went on to say.
Another junior, Grace Holmen, remarked, “I feel like I’m more my own person and more of an adult, but I don’t know how to be that person around my parents.” In the energetic college environment where whirling ideas and friendships stitch the days into weeks and weeks into quads, it can seem mundane or even discouraging to see that life back home is “the same.” I remember a friend once voicing his frustration that, after a holiday with his parents and grandparents, there seemed no place for the exploratory gestalt-seeking conversations afforded by a dorm room in the wee hours. The desire to digest dearly held ideas or experiences with a mother or father sometimes exposes an inability to connect new discoveries with the vocabulary of home. Holmen, a community art major, shared that when showing her father some of her work, he would tell her — much to her chagrin — it looked “cute.” Gently explaining to him that “cute” has often negative connotations in the art world, she asked him to consider her work with other words. This put him at a loss, venturing only “interesting.”
However, often while simultaneously exposing disconnects, college offers the realization of parents as friends. “Prior to coming to school, me and Dawn talked past each other a lot. We were just never on the same page,” sophomore Christina Shute stated, using her mother’s first name. “She was built to raise a young adult, so now we’re much more friends, and we relate so much better.” Often when I walk past Christina around campus she is talking on the phone with Dawn as if to a friend walking next to her. “I get really lonely on walks, so I call Dawn. She always picks up, and we just talk about our day. We’re so much closer now than we’ve ever been.” Shute explained that the probing mom questions that every teenager abhors have disappeared and that she and her mom can just talk life together. Like Dawn, who her daughter surmises will never retire from teaching, Shute is a math education major, and phone calls often include the two women discussing the intersection of study and practice.
Freshman Claire Dibble noted that distance has, to some extent, actually helped her further connect with her split family. Dibble’s parents divorced when she was young, and while moving away from living with her mom has elicited all the usual efforts to stay connected, the monthly phone calls with her dad have stayed consistent. But Dibble was surprised to experience a deepening in her relationship with her stepmom even after only a semester. “My stepmom and I can have more of a friendship because I’m not [living with my mom anymore]. I’m removed and in a third-party environment…. I actually called her last week and we talked for 45 minutes and she gave me life advice. That’s never happened before! I’ve never felt comfortable with that before! Now that I’m here, I’m realizing that this is a relationship that’s worth holding on to.”
I asked Dibble if she felt a distance from other students’ more harmonious family situations. She told me about eating dinner at a friend’s local home early in the semester. The environment of a unified, close-knit household was one she had no memories of. “In that moment I was hit with a wave of sadness. But as I’ve been here and been able to share my life story and testimony repeatedly it’s helped me realize just how thankful I am for my story. I have no idea where I would be without my parents being divorced. I for sure wouldn’t be at Wheaton…. I love talking about how God has taken such a broken situation and made it beautiful.”
Reconsidering our parents is actually a useful tool in reconsidering ourselves. I never realized just how my patterns of speaking or emoting are like my dad’s until I found myself repeating them at Wheaton. Junior Eddie McDougal likened the shocking discovery of hereditary traits to David Foster Wallace’s famed story of the fish unaware of the very water he’s swimming in. Our parents shape us, and often only by stepping back can we clearly see the framework of our upbringing — why we are who we are. For sophomore Caleb Connor, noticing the color of water has empowered him to hold his parents accountable to honesty within the family. “I feel like I have way more of a voice now that I’ve left my parents, specifically in the context of their marriage. I don’t have to put up with their crap anymore. I feel good about it. I can call them out.”
Glimpses back home also reveal the tiny changes that signify the ever moving life of the far-away family. They display how the accumulation of adjustments in the day-to-day can mark a profound change to returning eyes. Returning sons and daughters often recognize age. Holmen’s parents married in their forties and “when I go back, it’s sort of like dealing with older people. It’s like I’m trying to navigate the ‘who am I? I’m my own person, I’m an adult,’ and my parents are now old people at the same time.” McDougal also commented on his family’s shifting ages. From he and his siblings, one in highschool and one in grade school, to his parents, between whom there is almost a twenty year age gap, everyone in McDougal’s family “is in a different walk of life. I can say my dad is an old person, but I can’t say my mom is an old person.” Noticing their increasing ages whenever he returns gives him refreshing surprises at the resourcefulness of his parents in their different contexts.
Certainly, life never stops. For some parents, work goes on, and saying farewell to a kid for the school year invariably frees up more time for the job. However, the liturgies of domestic life — of word and deed — also weave a comforting structure ostensibly absent from course-loaded dormitory or apartment lives. The quiet meal, the knowing looks you’ve been receiving since toddlerhood, the ritualized dad jokes you know will play a chord on everyone’s face (negatively or positively) — these are the once-routine habits connecting many parents and children made impossible by distance and displacement. These relational ties are often the cues for homesickness.
Whether a student longs to return home after a busy semester or begrudges a return as the revisitation of some proverbial Egypt, it seems that college universally catalyzes a reconsideration of the kind of people our parents are and adjusts the way we commit ourselves to them as sons or daughters. To those who brought us into the world and were given responsibility for the people we have become, we too grow into a kind of responsibility to honor them by accepting our own adulthood.
“I’ve become as much of a guardian to my mom as I have become a son,” Jon Bartolomucci told me. Jon’s father died at the end of his junior year, and he described to me the process of making decisions about after graduation with his mother. They have both had to give each other space since their loss. “She recognizes that wherever I go, I have to go. … She’s letting me be selfish, but I also want to make sure that wherever I go my mom can tag behind. … I want her to be near my children. I want her to be a part of my regular life as I go into the future.”
As most of the student body heads home for Christmas, that holy day in which our Lord himself bound himself to a family, reminders of just what kind of life continues at home — and for parents, just what kind of life has left home — will occur to many of us like notifications on an iPhone. Memories of fulfillment and loss alike will pass through our minds like viewers in a gallery. But whether we feel gratitude or confusion at the humanity of our parents, perhaps our connection with them plumbs depths deeper than even blood. Perhaps it is love itself that will tie us together like the Father and the Son.