Home for the Holidays and Other Myths

When my daughter arrived at home for the holidays after her first semester at college, I was ready to see her walk up the stairs to her room and not emerge again until she had slept for 24-hours straight. I remember well the level of exhaustion that comes with trying to get all of your best work squeezed into the last week of the semester. As a professor who teaches first-year students, I am reminded each semester how hectic the last weeks are for even the most organized, motivated student.

I also assumed she would be ready to make her favorite food, cuddle with the cat, and hang out with us to watch some episodes of her favorite series The Great British Baking Show. I knew to leave her alone at first, but I was eager to get some mother-daughter time in before the break was over and her father and I had to re-enter the reality of full-time jobs.

What I was not prepared for was the fact that she was really never home for the holidays. Yes, she had moved most of her stuff home to wash, but for more than half of the time, she just wasn’t there. Instead, she reached out to her high school friends who had scattered all over and who also had limited time to catch up. There were lunch dates with a former teammate, coffee with school friends, movies with her college roommate (who lives in the same town), and a whole lotta hanging out, coming in late (1 a.m.!), and sleeping over.

That first winter break, I felt she never really came home even though the dirty dishes and wet towels indicated that she was indeed in our house some of the time. Instead, she “changed locations” and continued her college habits of doing what she wanted, when she wanted. Did we have to have a conversation about banging around the kitchen at 1 a.m. to make macaroni and cheese? Yes. Did we chastise her about seeing her friends instead of her parents? No. We asked her to make the designated family time a priority and then allowed her to make her own decisions about who, what, when, where, and how late. Did we expect her to communicate her plans? Definitely yes.

Let me emphasize that this is my story about how our family functioned with a college student home for the holidays. You may have other expectations and desires, but I can say that whatever you expect, take a few breaths and remember what is important to you and your family.

Was I a little disappointed my own kid didn’t want to hang out all the time? If I were honest, yes, but I also know that she needed to decompress on her own terms. She had just spent four months navigating early adulthood, making decisions about what to do when. Requiring her to turn that off immediately would have been difficult. Instead, we decided to negotiate our expectations (Dirty dishes lying around for days? Nope! Do that back at college.) and really enjoy the time that we did have with her.

And honestly, by January 5, I think we were all ready for her to go back…and enjoy her newfound freedom and responsibility of being a college student.