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In the Blink of an EyeShari McStay
It’s been ten months since I waved a valiant goodbye to my daughter, a new high school graduate, at Denver International Airport and sent her halfway around the world to live and work in Bergen, Norway. She will not be back until late July — almost a full year away.
During this time she's changed and grown in countless ways, which I expected. What I didn't expect was how her gap year would affect me. I've learned important lessons, too, that have helped prepare me for the college years ahead.
Of course there is no substitute for hugging your child, but FaceTime and Skype are life savers. Without video, I would have had no visual cues as to her well being and she would not have been able to see her sisters, the family dog, the Thanksgiving turkey. We worked out a routine — aiming for a call once a week and sometimes texting in between if there was urgent business (or either of us needed a quick morale boost).
I now know, though losing the day-to-day contact is hard, time does pass quicker than you think. We will likely continue this communication pattern through college and feel we have a head start on what works for us.
Yes, she was pretty independent even in high school and I know every child is different, but it has been reassuring to see that even without a daily check in, she can be fed, clothed, happy and setting and pursuing her own goals. Can strike this one off my maternal worry list when she leaves for college.
Sharing an apartment, bills and a fridge with roommates for the first time was eye opening. She now knows there can be a difference between good friends and good roommates, acknowledges what she could have done differently and (just as important) accepts what just has to be tolerated and waited out. That’s bound to stand her in good stead as a freshman and beyond and makes me less concerned about social and dorm issues.
Realizing there was often nothing I could do to help was strangely liberating — for both of us. It took me back to the importance of some of my own tougher gap year experiences in building resilience. My daughter was thrown into running a hotel restaurant breakfast service solo with minimal training and Norwegian. That is the kind of trial by fire both of us will be able to refer back to when she is struggling with a tough class, or a hard won internship doesn't live up to expectations.
Two months ago I finally visited. I stayed with my daughter in her neat-as-a-pin apartment (quite a contrast from the bedroom of her teen years). She proudly toured me around her adopted city speaking fluent-sounding Norwegian, cooked my meals, planned our days and delighted in explaining the quirky local customs. What a relaxing break from the home front where most of the arrangements seem to fall on me. If that’s a precursor of college visits, I say, “Bring on Family Weekend!”
Perhaps the most powerful lesson my daughter told me from her gap year (totally without prompting from me I might add) was that, having dealt with managing living expenses and some boring and demotivating jobs to support herself, it would feel like a luxury and a privilege to spend most of her time studying and discussing big ideas with friends and professors in college. That makes me feel even more excited about embarking on this new life stage with her.
This is the best realization of all. All the daily irritations fall away and what remains are missing and rediscovering the essence of the person and the key strengths of your relationship. And next year when she is a student in Washington, DC, I can expect to see her in the flesh every few months, not once a year — what a gift!
Big choices — and big changes — are on the horizon for your senior and your entire family.