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Connections

Learning to be a college mom

A parent shares her aha moment on staying close, from a distance.

Gracia Lam

It was the last week in August and just a few days before my oldest daughter headed off to college. I had spent the summer wondering if we had taught her everything she needed to know before leaving the nest. I insisted on having five conversations with her before the end of the summer. Drugs, sex, and rock ’n’ roll kind of conversations. She wanted the topics to be combined into a single talk. No, I insisted, each one deserved its own focus.

As I drove to work, I thought about kissing her goodbye just moments before. She had been in the kitchen packing up food for her day at the beach with friends. Oh, no, I thought, as I drove along the Mass. Pike. Did I ever teach her not to use mayonnaise on sandwiches for the beach? I couldn’t remember any conversations about mayonnaise, and as images of food poisoning swirled in my head, I called her cellphone.

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“Hi, Mom. What’s up?”

“Hey, honey, did I ever tell you that you shouldn’t use mayonnaise for the beach?”

Even though we were now about 20 miles apart, I swear I could feel the car vibrate from her eyes rolling back into her head.

“Yes, Mom, of course I know that.”

“OK. Love you. Have a great day.”

A few days later, we packed up a rented van full of her stuff and the four of us drove six hours to her new college. The first part of the drop-off wasn’t too terrible, since we busied ourselves with picking up this and that and getting her dorm room organized. And then it came time to say goodbye, and I discovered that even really big sunglasses don’t hide your tears. I cried off and on for the entire ride home. Once there, I immediately closed her bedroom door. I knew one glance into her empty room would get me crying all over again. I spent the day checking my phone for a text to tell me how she was doing, but my phone never vibrated.

That evening, as my husband and I were getting ready for bed, my younger daughter called out from the other room.

“Hey, Mom, she’s going to be OK. She’s on her way to a frat house.”

It was at that point that my husband started crying.

The next few weeks were a major transition — for her and for me. I made up excuses to send a daily text, but many weren’t returned. Her initial calls home didn’t go so well. I asked too many questions. I was too quick with advice. I wanted her to call more often and stay on the phone longer.

And then one night it hit me what I needed to do: I needed to become a college mom. Over the next few months I pulled back and developed the faith that she would figure out things on her own. And she did. I learned that the fewer questions I asked, the more I was told. I worked hard not to offer advice unless she asked for help. And I discovered that when you have a kid in college, you really are better off not knowing everything.

During her four years at school we settled into a new relationship. I was there when she needed me for advice about her health or career, but she handled most things on her own. She delighted me with regular calls to just chat and catch up. Our time together was less frequent but in many ways even more precious.

At graduation, we watched her walk across the stage as a young woman ready to take on the world. I beamed with pride. She had learned so much and had taught me even more.

Mary C. Finlay is a professor and an executive coach for women in technology. Send comments to connections@globe.com.

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