For spring break this year, as other families posted Instagram pictures from sunny locations, my daughter and I packed the car and headed out on the road to look at colleges. Our itinerary would take us through Pennsylvania into Washington DC, then up through Baltimore and back home to New Jersey. The plan included five schools, four tours and two overnights with family and friends.
The weather was spectacular. Just beautiful enough, I hoped, to convince my daughter that going to school in the middle of Pennsylvania might be as nice as going south where, she points out regularly, it doesn’t snow. She’s smart enough to know otherwise, but was a good-sport about opening her heart to the mantra my husband and I have started repeating that goes something like, “You Don’t Have to Go Too Far From Home to Love College.”
With the open road before us and the prospect of change in the air, we began our journey. I programmed destinations into my navigation, she programmed her playlist and we set out with a little information, some questionable music, a loaf of Italian bread and a lot of chocolate.
Like any journey, of course, there are lessons that we learn along the way. For example, I learned that everyone is totally cool with co-ed dorms. I learned that college gyms have come a long way from a few step machines and free weights (belaying, anyone?).
I also learned a few things that I hadn’t known about myself — mostly courtesy of my sixteen year old travel companion.
I learned that I am a little annoying. I smile for no reason at public speakers. Sometimes, I even nod too — both of which, I’m told, are unnecessary. I confirmed that I am terrible at Facetiming, as we compared colleges between tours with her friend over the phone.
I also learned that I apply lipstick way too much. Like when I’m driving, when I’m going out in public, or when I’m nervous — which was the entire trip.
Because, on this road trip, our destinations did not mark end-points in a journey. Rather, each place represented a potential beginning in the next phase of my daughter’s life — and a new and unknown stage of parenting.
On every tour, the parents asked most of the questions. The parents nodded along with the guide, “oohed and aahed” at the architecture, and laughed at the tour giver’s jokes. At some point at every school we visited, I saw at least one teenager scowl at their parent and mouth the words, “Please stop.” I saw more than one exasperated teenager elbow a parent who nodded off during an information session.
I looked at these parents, my peers, and felt a kinship. I even smiled at the dad dressed in full camp gear — rimmed sun hat, fishing vest and drab shorts (frankly, I figured that he probably had extra water in his backpack, should we get stranded in an elevator). We were all just trying to glean as much information as possible.
What I realized, as I stood in a semi-circle of middle-aged parents around some chipper, youthful college student, is that each of us was trying to imagine our children on a campus without us, and suddenly all of the work — the prepping and protecting, the coddling and researching, the parenting books and blogs, the mom groups, the tutors, the coaches, the camps, the worried conversations with friends over wine or the fraught conversations with spouses behind closed doors — it all falls away.
What is left is the one single and unnerving parenting strategy that we seem to fall back on time and time again: we are all just hoping for the best.
This felt both liberating and disconcerting to me. I looked at my fellow parents, each of us with our own child-rearing style, seeing that we default to our usual tics.
Some asked questions in rapid staccato. Some instinctively stood with their arms around their child. There were a few parents who managed to name-drop other, more prestigious, colleges they had already looked at. And I’m pretty sure I saw camper-dad counting the fire exits in every building.
In the face of the unknown, we soothe ourselves in familiar and predictable ways — and if our children find it annoying, it may just mean that they’re ready to move on. I even think that’s what we hope for.
As mothers and fathers, we work hard to control the things we can, resigned to the fact that it’s not enough. I learned that parents on a college tour are a particularly lame looking bunch. Surrounded by curious, young adults, we all look a little weary and tired, and maybe a little dorky and overly eager.
Whatever. It’s nothing a little lipstick can’t fix.