Going away for college is basically training wheels for adulthood. Suddenly, you are entirely responsible for juggling your health and well-being, your work (which can run the gamut of classes, internships, and part-time jobs), and your social life—but there is no helpful head poking into your room reminding you to clean your sheets or eat your breakfast. It’s a learning curve, and although you might receive the occasional care package from home or a card with an inspirational quote in the mail, you’re on your own. And if you’re anything like me, during your first night away, you called someone close to you and fought the urge to beg them to come take you back home. For me that person was my mom, and I’m thankful she didn’t come get my homesick self—even if that’s what I wanted at the time.
After my mom talked me down from my embarrassing, near immediate surrender to this overwhelming new life of mine, I realized that I needed to work on a relationship I’d taken for granted my entire life. It’s no secret that it takes effort to keep a relationship strong, whether it’s a friend you’ve had since middle school, a new romantic partnership, or your relationship with family members. It requires contact and check-ins and effort.
Suddenly, I understood that I would have to start making the same amount of effort to stay close with my mother.
On the day I was going to move into college, I remember laying on my bed in my mom’s apartment and staring up at the ceiling. My suitcases and bags were heaped into a corner, and looking back, I can say that I definitely packed way too much stuff. But I wanted—needed—to be prepared for anything. My university was only a two-hour commute, but it felt like a whole world away to me. After a while, my mom came in to lay down with me. We didn’t say anything to each other until my aunts arrived and we packed the borrowed minivan. My mom and I went back inside, but my aunts honked and eventually burst in with a flurry of efficiency that I resented. I wasn’t ready to leave.
As an only child living with a single parent, starting college was particularly hard for the both of us.
She was my built-in best friend. The first person I looked to for advice. I winced whenever someone brought up empty nest syndrome, imagining my mom alone in a dark apartment instead of a married couple arguing over what they were going to do with the now-empty room.
Growing up with a single parent really does come with its own challenges and language. But it’s something that I would never trade for the world. As a kid, I would visit my father every other weekend, and we had a good time, but there was nothing in my life like the relationship I had with my mother. That’s why, when college came around, separating us by roughly one hundred miles, I learned a simple truth:
All relationships, even those with your parents, have to change if they’re going to survive through adulthood.
Instead of talking about our days at the dinner table or spending hours flicking between television channels to choose our nightly movie, we had to schedule time when we were both free to talk on the phone. We didn’t always do this perfectly. There was the time my grandmother injured herself and I felt helpless at school, waiting around to hear from my mom about her recovery. Every so often, we’d realize we’d forgotten to tell each other about important moments.
It’s a lesson I took to heart and applied to other relationships, too. I made an effort to text and visit friends who had sat beside me every day in high school. I called other relatives just to talk, and then tried to remain consistent with the contact.
More than anything, I found that, between the distance and the phone conversations, I was able to learn more about my mother’s daily life than I’d ever known before—like the fact that she secretly had a better, more exciting social life than me, her daughter in college. She wasn’t sitting alone in a dark apartment, as I’d feared. Instead of asking me if I had finished my homework or if I’d washed the dishes in the sink, she asked me about my friends and relationships. I asked her about her friends and her career. We talked about my love life, about some guy who refused to leave me alone on social media, about her stressful days at work, about the fun she had going out.
Slowly, through these new, honest conversations, we shifted from that protective parent relationship to something more equal and balanced.
Honestly, I’m concerned that if the distance between us hadn’t forced us to have more intentional conversations, I would still look at my mother only as a caretaker figure, an archetype of motherhood. Not as this interesting, complex, fun-loving woman who also happens to be my mom.
College helped me to take responsibility in everything I did, and that included taking responsibility for my role in all my relationships. Now, years after my college freshman move-in day, my mom and I still make time to talk practically every day on the phone. I moved closer to home after graduation, but I’m still a good hour away from her with my own apartment and cats and life. We make plans to spend time together and are even planning a vacation to a friend’s destination wedding.
The change in our relationship has been subtle but important. I’d like to think it started on the first night of college, when I realized that being my mother was only one facet of my mom’s identity. I’m certain that this new closeness between us will last, and not because of where we are geographically, but because she is my friend.