I filed into the new student orientation on the second floor of the Memorial Union at Arizona State University, walking behind my son.
They gave us ID badges on Sun Devil lanyards. Mine had an added maroon ribbon on it that said “Alumni.”
These were my old stomping grounds. I was the first person in my family to go to college. The first two years were at Glendale Community College, and then to ASU where I worked on the student newspaper.
I came back three years later and started work on a master’s degree, one class at a time. It took me seven years to finish.
This time, I was here as someone’s mother. There were a lot of us. Dads, too, but the majority of parents were moms.
Sawyer met up with his friend Ethan, and I trailed after them to seats in the back row. I read through the folder of paperwork I had been given, and then people-watched over the top of it.
This orientation was technically for Sawyer. But this was unfamiliar territory for me, too. I had questions.
Because after 18 years of parenting, I felt like I had gotten good at this. I mean, I’m sure I did some damage along the way, but Sawyer is healthy and happy (for a teenager, anyway).
I followed the advice Teacher Sheila gave me in preschool: Instead of following two feet behind Sawyer, as he toddled around the playground, I should stay in one spot, close, but not right on top of him where he could see me, and let him explore. He would circle back to me — to show me an interesting stick, ask a question or get a hug — and then he would venture out again.
I was a safe harbor from which he could come and go, there if he needed me.
Sawyer is 18 now, smart — and a bit of a smart-ass. His pockets are filled with folded schematic drawings and mathematical equations that cover both sides of the paper. He gives piano lessons to two little kids and tutors a classmate in calculus. He thinks he’d like to be a college math professor.
As I looked around, taking in the hundreds of students and hundreds more of their parents, I wondered who would I be?
I think Sawyer and I both were realizing this was a much bigger world than high school, especially one like his with fewer than 100 students in his graduating class.
He was excited to get started. I wasn’t so sure.
So as the new student orientation got started, I studied the parents.
So many choices, so many moms
Would I bethe Can’t Let it Go Mom?
She was in the seat next to me withher arm around her son. She patted his back and ruffled his hair. During welcoming remarks, she held her cell phone high and took a selfie of them both.
Her son dropped his head into his hands.
I dropped my cell phone into my open purse on the floor. I wouldn’t take any pictures today.
Sawyer smiled at me.
Maybe I’d be like the Lawnmower Dad.
He asked about Internet speed and laptop specs, valet parking, water delivery, and laundry and housekeeping services. It was clear he thought freshman year would be tough. Any obstacle in front of his child would be mowed down.
By the way, those services do exist on campus. For example, professional maid services to thoroughly clean and disinfect your student’s bathroom every other week run $299 a semester.
“You’ll be cleaning your own bathroom,” I whispered to Sawyer. He doesn’t look surprised.
Could I be the Best Friend Mom?
She’s dressed the same as her college daughter, same haircut, and same highlights in her hair. She never wants to be the bad guy. She squeezes her daughter’s hand each time the slide on the PowerPoint changes. They made plans for a spring break trip — together.
“Don’t even think about it,” said Sawyer,watching me watching her.
Would I suddenly turn into the Alarmist Mom?
She asked about how police handle political demonstrations on campus and whether the food is organic, and if ceilings in the residence halls contain carcinogenic materials.
I could see a bottle of hand sanitizer in her purse. You know she probably had a GPS chip embedded in her daughter.
Could I be the Know-It-All Mom?
She raised her hand often but never to ask a question. No, she had information to share. The move-in date for ROTC students. The services offered at the disabled student resources center. Which dorm rooms include mini refrigerators and microwaves.
I flipped back through my folder. None of that information was in there.
Where was she getting this stuff? I considered moving to sit next to her.
At the first break, the I-Can’t-Believe-It Mom turned to me.
She had tears in her eyes. “Can you believe they are graduating from high school? Can you believe they are in college?”
She clearly couldn’t.
I can, I said, maybe too quickly.
This is what we learn on TV
I know this is the mom I’m supposed to be, the one who tears up and waxes poetically about how it seems like just yesterday that they started kindergarten. It is how every mom on TV and in the movies react, sobbing through the last choir concert and right up to commencement.
It’s so sweet.
It’s just not me.
Look, parenting has been wonderful, awe-inspiring. I would not trade one minute of the past 18 years for anything (well, maybe that three-day stomach-flu bout when Sawyer was 2 or the summer of Yu-Gi-Oh! trading cards).
But I’ve admitted before that being a mom isn’t always fun. A lot of the time, it’s downright hard.
These last few years have made me wonder why they give teenagers those baby dolls that cry all hours of the day, stopping only when they are fed, changed and cuddled, to deter them from having children too soon.
Really they should give them surly adolescent dolls that demand their car keys, empty the refrigerator and roll their eyes at everything they say.
That would put them off.
I just want to be cool about it
After the break, the students were directed to the next room where they would register for classes. Parents were supposed to stay put.
But the Can’t-Let-it-Go Mom got up and followed her son anyway. Five minutes later, she was back, thwarted in her attempt to pick out his classes.
I turned away, trying not to laugh out loud, and caught the eye of a mom sitting in the row ahead of us.
Now this is the mom I aspire to be.
The Been-There, Done-That Mom is from New Jersey and sending her second child off to college.
She knew what they do and don’t need in a dorm room and how much they likely would eat. She’d get me a recommendation from her engineer husband about which laptop would be best.
She was calm, almost casual, about it all. Her son looked as confident.
“They’ll be fine,” she leaned in and told me. “I promise.”
I believed her.
‘Give them a moment’
The slide on the screen overhead said, “Empowering Your Student for Success.” I took up my pen and notebook. Maybe the speaker, Georgeana Montoya, an assistant vice president for student services, would have the answers.
Some separation anxiety is to be expected, she said, for us and our students, though they won’t make friends if they are on the phone with mom and dad all the time. Let them immerse themselves in this new life.
She cautioned us not to worry if we hardly heard from our kids at all in the first few weeks of school. They will be busy, meeting people and finding their way around.
But we could expect our students to call tearful and miserable at some point to report that their professors are demanding, their roommates are pigs and it’s too hot. They’ll say they want to come home.
The Been-There, Done-That Mom chuckled. “It’s true,” she said.
But in the time it takes you to scramble to buy an airline ticket online, Montoya said, usually someone had knocked on your student’s door, invited him or her to pizza, or to watch a movie, and they were over it.
“It happens all the time,” Montoya said. “Give them a moment. They’re safe here.”
Wait, what’s the number again?
Next she pointed out, “Your son or daughter is in another room making choices.”
“How many of you trust your students to make good decisions?”
I put my hand in the air. About half of the parents did. (“I got a little nervous,” Montoya admitted later.)
OK, she said, taking a deep breath. We had until halfway through August to fix that. What would they need to know?
Apparently a lot of them needed to know their social security number because as Montoya spoke, parents’ cell phones began to buzz. Their students in the other room were texting for help.
They had been gone about 20 minutes. I discretely pulled out my cell phone and looked at the screen. No text.
Sawyer had this.He had been filling out college, scholarship and job applications for months now. He knew how to cook, do laundry, vacuum and clean a bathroom. He has his own bank account.
Now he’d need to manage his meal plan, scholarships and tuition bills. Being an adult would mean a lot more paperwork for him — and a lot less for me.
From now on, Montoya said, he would have to figure out most things for himself. If he called for help, I should listen but not fix the problem for him. Instead, I should ask what he thinks he should do, what resources are available and review his options.
If there was a serious problem, of course we should step in, she said. We will know when.
Because we know our students best.
But I realized I would know him less and less, starting right then.
So which mom will I be?
Eighteen is an odd age, legally an adult but not really. Not yet. He loves our house, but can’t wait to leave it.
That’s all right.
Because this was what almost 18 years of parenting has been all about.
Raising a young man who could stand on his own two feet.
I’ll miss him.
But to think, no more lurking in the dark in the living room, arms crossed, when he is late for curfew. If I put something in the refrigerator, it will still be there an hour later when I go to eat it.
Then again, there won’t be anyone to beat at Scrabble, or watch “Game of Thrones” with or hug goodnight.
I suspect he’ll come home occasionally. He might need his car. Or miss the dog. Maybe he’ll even miss me.
As I listened, I learned that I should encourage good study habits and not mention how I stayed up all night cramming for tests, even if I did. I’ll talk to him about eating well and getting enough sleep.
I’ll encourage him to go to class, make friends, join clubs and get to know his professors. I’ll know what resources are available — the health clinic, free tutoring, mentors — so I can remind him.
I’ll listen when things are hard, and celebrate his successes.
It will mean being patient, and trusting him. It will mean letting go but being there when he needs me. I can do that.
Because the mom I’ll be? I’ll be Sawyer’s Mom.
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