If you have had children in college, you are aware of the phenomena known as Family Weekend. A time to face crowded restaurants, sold-out football games, and inflated hotel room prices.
At this point in my post, I can hear some of you shouting back at your computer screens, saying, “Well, what about the children, Dr. Mike, you cynical SOB.” Dear reader, of course, we go for our children, but you have to admit that my opening sentences do have the ring of truth.
I have four children. Two have graduated from college, and two are presently attending college. I have gone to such weekends for three of my four children. My daughter, Kathryn, went to a college that was over 1,700 miles from our home, and it just wasn’t practical to go with my wife and two minor kids.
This year I attended two such celebrations. Earlier this month, I drove two hours to be with my son at his state university, and last weekend I drove five hours to go to my daughter’s school in another Midwestern state.
There is a tremendous amount of hype over these days, and we are typically inundated with flyers, postcard reminders, and emails. Despite knowing that hotels fill very early, we have a tendency to book late, which has resulted in us having to stay in hotels in other towns or pay the outrageous prices that such procrastination brings.
Family weekends always includes a football game. We commit to going to the game, but by the time we go to buy the tickets, they are sold out. There are a variety of other activities, and there is typically some performance by a celebrity, no matter how minor. We have a 50% hit rate when it comes to getting tickets for those shows.
My wife is our primary booking agent, and she was horrified to find that the only hotels available for my son’s weekend were $300 a night. Instead of paying that, she booked a campsite in a nearby county park for less than $30. I was delighted with her choice for several reasons. First, I love camping, which I especially enjoy in my homemade campervan, Violet. Second, this would be the first time that Julie and I would attempt sleeping in the van together. Thus far, I have only slept in Violet solo, and we weren’t sure if the two of us would fit on Violet’s non-standardized platform bed. We booked similar camping accommodations for my daughter’s Family Day weekend and the same reasons. The results of our sleeping experiments would determine the feasibility of the two of us going on longer adventures in Violet.
My friend Tom and I planned Violet’s buildout well, and traveling in her is a pleasure. She is self-contained, and solar panels on the roof power her house functions (roof fan, interior lights, fridge, etc.). The kitchen is permanently stocked with pots and pans and equipped with both a butane stove and a microwave oven. She carries her bedding, and her garage area holds outdoor necessities like a table and chairs. Going on a weekend trip is as simple as packing a change of clothing and raiding the house fridge for food to make a few simple meals. Since we would be taking our kids out for meals during their respective Family Weekends, the only foods that we needed to pack were some snacks as well as some freshly ground coffee for our wake-up cup.
I know that it would be more interesting to share dramatic stories of generational conflict or teenage angst, but the fact is that I have fantastic, wonderful offspring. They are smart, kind, considerate, and have great empathy. My pride in them overflows.
At both colleges, I witnessed kids walking with their parents with their heads down in utter contempt. I heard snarky comments from students and saw parents with exasperated looks on their faces.
During both of this year’s Family Weekends, our kids were gracious hosts. They smiled when they looked at us, and when we professed our love for them, they sincerely told us that they loved us back. They not only allowed me to hug them in public, but they squeezed me just as tightly. They didn’t seem bothered that we wanted to do things with them, and we were the ones who ended the evening because we were just tuckered out. They even were willing to go to Sunday brunch with us, delaying any activities that they had planned for that day. They are just fun to be with.
There is something that happens as your children age; they become adults. I know that this may sound obvious, but the actual experiencing of this phenomenon can seem oddly strange. I spent 36 years raising children (that is not a typo). In that role, I (along with my wife) was the caregiver, the decision-maker, the soother, the provider, the compromiser. These roles never end for a parent, but they do evolve.
As a parent, you start to see this transition when you realize that your kids have their own opinions, interests, and desires and that those attributes may be different from yours. Suddenly, you are aware that you are talking to them with the honesty of an adult conversation rather than with the protected and padded conversations that you had with them only a few years earlier. You start to notice that they are taking your feelings into account when they interact with you. You observe them making plans and charting their course. You note that they are keeping their responsibilities and honoring their commitments without your reminders.
When I saw these changes in my children, I was immensely proud, but also quietly sad and even a little afraid. When they were younger, they looked up to me; now we look eye to eye. I had the answer to all of their questions; now they give me answers. I had a feeling of security knowing where they were and what they were doing; now, I can only assume that they are making good choices. Raising children is a tremendous responsibility, but that work returned something to me worth any costs, that return is called “family.”
I am not saying that my children have become islands onto themselves. They still need my support, and they even ask for my advice. However, my contributions have become just one stream out of several that they use.
Julie and I put away money for our children’s education. However, there was no reasonable way that we could wholly pay for all of their college degrees. We are fortunate that our kids are smart and do well academically, which opened the door to merit scholarships. When it came down to college decisions, several factors were at play: the overall quality of education, the cost of education, and how the applicant (our kids) felt about the school. The financial goal was simple, scholarship funds + college savings = debt-free college degree. We would never expect our kids to go to a school that they hated. However, a school’s scenic location or a state-of-the-art fitness center were of minor importance. The kids made their own decisions, but they did have to deal with years of my ponderings on the positive impact of having zero college debt. This may seem too calculating to some who grade schools by climate, football teams, and ivy league pedigrees. Debt may be the inevitable price for many college degrees, but if it can be avoided, I think that it should be avoided.
Our William was somewhat reticent about his college choice; however, it ticked off all of the boxes. It was gratifying to have him tell us that after five weeks away, he liked his new school. He was mature enough to move forward instead of continuing to stay in a sullen place.
It was awesome to witness our kids acting rationally and maturely. Grace told us of her horrifyingly stressful midterm week with accuracy and also with some humor. When Julie said, “What can I do to help you,” Grace wisely replied, “Just listen to me and love me.” She let us know that it wasn’t our job to fix her problems; loving her would be enough.
I am a realistic man who knows that few things stay the same. I’m not expecting that everything will be rosy with my kids from now on. I know that we all have our ups and downs, but I feel that my children have the flexibility and resiliency to cope in today’s modern world.
For me going to Parent’s Weekend had little to do with football games or comedy acts. Parent’s Weekend was just another time to be with my children and to marvel at the miracle before me.
And if you are wondering about the camper sleeping thing, yes, we can both fit on the bed with a little artful spooning.