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What I Learned in 2020Anne Maytubby
When I decided to move across the country for college, the last thing on my mind was how I would talk to my parents. I was excited about the start of a new chapter far away from everything, and everyone, I had known before.
But when the time came to say goodbye to my family, I was suddenly aware of how bizarre, and how lonely, it would be to not see them every day. The first few weeks, I found myself reaching out to my parents and siblings often. I felt that I needed to process my new environment with them — my successes, the things that were exciting to me, and the experiences that I was nervous about.
However, as I settled into my routine and solidified new friendships, my parents heard from me less and less. Often a few weeks would go by and I'd only be reminded to call my mom when I received a panicked “you alive??” text.
In the years that have followed, it’s sometimes been difficult to balance my connection with loved ones back home with my life on campus. Time differences and busy schedules have only made it more challenging to form and maintain a strategy for regular communication.
This fall, although I’ll be living in the same city as my parents, I’m anticipating that communication will take on a new urgency. I imagine that this is the case for many families who have students returning to campus or otherwise living away from home. COVID-19 public health restrictions could limit parent involvement with move-in, prevent students from traveling home for breaks, and increase everyone’s anxiety around being separated from home and family.
I’ve often lamented my failure to make a plan for staying connected with my parents before I left home. This semester, I’m determined to do the planning I’ve avoided before and have compiled a list of tips and tricks I wish my parents and I had known years ago.
Through exhaustive trial and error, my family and I have worked out the types and frequency of communication which work for us.
For example, I always appreciate getting pictures and updates about my mom’s garden, but there are only so many pictures of tomato seedlings I can reply to on a Friday night. Now she knows that, if I don’t reply to a text message, we can discuss her fertilizing strategies the next time we talk on the phone.
In order to avoid hurt feelings or communication overload, both of which can lead to radio silence, parents and students should communicate before students leave home about how, how often, and about what they would like to connect. During this conversation, make sure there’s space for both parties to negotiate if a request is too demanding so that the final plan serves everyone.
Dealing with a family emergency while separated by thousands of miles is a situation that can be packed with stress and uncertainty. While one of my good friends was away at school, her parents, wary of distracting her in the midst of finals, elected to wait to tell her some sad news. When she went home, she had to process her feelings about their secrecy as well as her grief. She would have much preferred that they had given her a call, but they didn’t know because they hadn’t ever planned for that situation.
The unfortunate truth of the present moment is that the specter of tragedy looms. For many families, making a plan for communicating with your student about illness and loss may be more of an urgent necessity than ever before. Dealing with tragedy can be especially difficult for students separated from their familial support networks, which is why it’s so important that they are contacted on their terms; make sure to ask your student if, when and how they would like to be notified of information that may not be easy to receive.
Although I recommend that you make a plan for communication, this plan should include an understanding of flexibility. We’ve all been reminded this year that our lives can be suddenly interrupted, and some weeks it might be healthiest to amend your original blueprint and opt for more or less communication than originally planned.
For many of my peers, a strict weekly call with their families has ended up feeling more like an unwanted obligation than an expression of love and care. Plan to check in with your student periodically to make sure that everyone is still feeling satisfied and supported, and ask them about any especially busy times that they can already anticipate in the coming semester.
Calling, video chatting and texting are easier than ever before, but this doesn’t mean those are the only ways to stay connected while separated. Once, for a few months, my dad emailed me a poem every day. Sometimes they came from poets he loved and wanted to share with me, but most often they were poems that he wrote himself. It was a fun way to bond through a shared interest, and I loved getting an insight into what his life was like at home.
Although it may take a little longer, physical mail is also a great way to stay in touch with family. My friends and I all display artwork, postcards or handwritten letters from our families on our dorm room walls. These little tokens are great reminders that we’re loved and supported — as well as visual reminders to give our loved ones a call.
The support I’ve received from my family during the past two years, whether we’re together or 2000 miles apart, has been invaluable. I’m hoping that all of the mistakes and triumphs I have made will help my family, and yours, stay connected through yet another unpredictable school year.