Dearest Answer Queen:
Recently, my freshman son had a three-day weekend from college that happened to fall over my birthday. His college is four hours from home, but there’s a bus from his school right to our town. I told him the best gift he could give me would be to come home, even just for a night, and celebrate with me and his sister. He said no—he had too much work, he was too stressed, he’d be home soon for Thanksgiving, and we could celebrate then. But I knew that the short Thanksgiving break would be divided between me, his father (we split up a few years ago), his friends, and whatever else he wanted to do. And it was.
I love my son; he’s a sweet, polite kid who did well in high school and has never gotten in any real trouble. But by senior year he was too “busy” to walk the dog, wash the dishes, or help with other chores when I asked. To me, his refusal to comply with my birthday request now seems like an extension of that behavior: him feeling like he can expect others to be there for him (as we always were, of course), while he’s not there for others when they ask for things. I feel like I’ve failed to teach him that it’s important to think about the people he loves and to honor a request they might make, even if it’s slightly inconvenient or uncomfortable.
How can I make him see that giving is as important as getting, and 90 percent of life is showing up for someone?
Worried I Failed as a Mom
At first, I was sure I knew the answer to this question, and it went like this: Much as you’d love to have your son home to celebrate your birthday—and deserve it, for God’s sake, after raising the little house elf for almost two decades!—it shouldn’t be required of him, as someone at college (and especially so newly at college), to travel hours home mid-semester just because you asked to see him, birthday or not, long weekend or not. I know some will disagree (I went on); there are plenty of people who believe family comes before anything, and if that’s truly how you raised your child, then okay. But we’ve all heard about the importance of giving your kids “roots and wings.” Your son is at the “wings” phase. Let him soar. Don’t let your needs clip his wings.
That being said (I said), if you can afford it and your daughter can spare the days, what if, next time, you and she went to him for your birthday? A hotel room for a night could be fun for both of you, and your son would only need to spare a few hours for a nice dinner near school—which he’d probably welcome. If your daughter can’t get away, do it solo! Book a nice place with room service and a wine list, add a mani-pedi, a massage, or a local gallery visit (or all three), and treat yourself—with the bonus of seeing your boy.
Your son is at the ‘wings’ phase. Let him soar. Don’t let your needs clip his wings.
Satisfied, I showed my answer to a few readers, as I usually do before hitting Send. And one of them—a wise and generous woman I’ve known for decades—said, “I disagree about him coming home. I think it’s not wrong for a kid, particularly one who’s grown up with privilege, to comply with a parent’s request, even if it might be stressful or uncomfortable.” Huh, I thought. So I decided to get a credentialed opinion on this.
A Second Opinion
I called Ellen Galinsky, MS, an educator and child development expert and the author of Six Stages of Parenthood and the bestseller Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Skills Every Child Needs. She was more sympathetic to the mother than I was (“She’s a single parent, and it sounds like she’s gone out of her way to make life work for her son”), but she also stressed the importance here of what she called “perspective-taking”—the need for each of them to try to see things from the other’s perspective. “Yes, he has free time,” she said, “but maybe it’s really important for him to spend it with the people he’s just meeting in school, or maybe he needs to work particularly hard in one class. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you. You need to think about why it might be hard for him to come home—just as he needs to try to understand why it might be hard for you to not have him there.”
If you can genuinely understand the person’s reason for their behavior, you can be a much better parent.
She added that it’s a mistake to label the character of the other person because of the behavior: to think of it as one more piece of evidence that they’re selfish, lazy, self-absorbed, uncommitted. Instead, she said, “If you can genuinely understand the person’s reason for their behavior—how they think and feel—you can be a much better parent. And if you can teach them how you think and feel, you can come to some sort of resolution.” She suggests a conversation where mother says to son: “Tell me why you didn’t want to come home, and I’ll listen and not judge. And then I want to tell you why I’m sad you weren’t here—not to guilt you, but so you understand.” Then she can explain: they’ve always been together on her birthday, or she’s missed him since he’s gone and knew her birthday would accentuate that.
Then, she said, you can brainstorm ways to have future birthday celebrations that work for you both. Much better than him coming home begrudgingly—which isn’t really much of a birthday present anyway.
The Good News
I agreed with Galinsky, and I likewise was glad my eyes were pried slightly more open by my wise friend. And I do think you get credit, WIFAAM, for wanting to raise a son who’s a good person as well as a successful one, who can look beyond himself and think about what other people need. Also, given how many kids today have trouble leaving home, points to you for raising a child who can go to college and do all the things successful first-years do: work hard, connect socially, party a little, and start to figure out what he likes and who he is.
Yes, this is the end of an era, but it’s also the beginning of one: the one about you.
I also think, and I’m sure you realize this, that you’re in a tough chapter right now in The Story of You. Watching your kids fly away is hard enough without being newly single—you’ve got the double slap-down. It might help to focus on something outside of yourself, instead of on the pain of what you’re missing: a project you always wanted to do, to wit, or something you didn’t have time for in your earlier years. One woman I know started an online magazine after her kids left; another is working on an anthology of writing; another took a long trip with a group; a fourth took up karate. (She’s buff as F now, not kidding.)
Because, yes, this is the end of an era, but it’s also the beginning of one: the one about you. And the flip side of having to let go of parts of your past is having new spaces to fill with amazing, maybe even life-changing things—and people—that eluded you before. I wish you tons of good luck. As my Buddha-loving ex-sister-in-law used to say: Hope you can find your bliss.
A version of this story was originally published in December 2018.