fb-pixel Skip to main content

When leaving home for college strains ties with those left behind

Revisiting a difficult subject during graduation season.

Do you have a situation you need some help with? Send your questions to Miss Conduct.

My recent column featuring a question from the spouse of a man who had left his hometown for school, opening a gulf between his family and him, touched a nerve with readers. As graduation season and nest-leaving looms, it seems a good time to revisit and expand on the subject.

M.R., a reader who left home for good at 23, is now 57 with a daughter of her own preparing to leave for college. Meanwhile, M.R.’s parents are elderly and dealing with health issues. “I am thinking about my choices,” M.R. writes, noting that she “would be interested to hear from those who dealt with similar issues.”


She also asked for recommended authors or books by people who’ve left their hometowns and by those who’ve stayed.

Serendipitously enough, another reader wrote in with a suggestion for a book to read: Alfred Lubrano’s 2004 work Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams. The book looks at the estimated 13 million Americans who grew up in blue-collar families but went to college and became white-collar workers. Book-Loving Letter Writer said he is one of these people (Lubrano calls them straddlers), and that the book helped him understand “the challenges of entering a new class with different assumptions and expectations.” But, he says, “I was lucky. My parents pushed all their eight kids to get educated and get out of South Boston.”

Thank you, B.L.L.W.! Have you read Michael Patrick MacDonald’s All Souls: A Family Story from Southie? It’s a memoir about, well, exactly what it says in the subtitle. It was eye-opening to me, as a “straddler” (ew, though) from the Midwest.

I’m glad you mentioned urban, coastal Southie, because the dominant narrative about leavers and stayers is about Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America, as sociologists Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas titled their 2010 book. This is the story told in J.D. Vance’s popular, controversial memoir Hillbilly Elegy and Tara Westover’s very different one, Educated. It’s a meaningful trend — politically, economically, even environmentally — but for any given individual, like you over there, M.R., the particulars make all the difference.


Some things we should all keep in mind in such situations is that people make the best choices they can, given their information and resources at the time. You — we — can never know what would have happened if you’d taken another path; reflecting on past choices shouldn’t mean ruminating or self-blame. Our life choices about education, occupation, and location are constrained by many, many factors. Every decision opens some doors and closes many more. Where we are in life is partly the product of our choice and partly circumstance and luck.

However, almost everyone retrofits their personal narratives to justify their actions and make their decisions seem inevitable in hindsight. People sometimes feel judged by other people’s choices (“Why did you order a salad? Are you trying to make me feel bad?”) and that dynamic gets turned up to 11 in families. Try to avoid that tendency in yourself, and be aware of it in others — especially if you have family members heading off to college or out on their own.

Readers, what have you learned about managing the relationships with family (and friends) who stayed/left when you did not?


Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.