Family dynamics change when children go away to college. Some new college students relish their newfound freedom and independence and distance themselves from their families while they spread their wings. Others crave the security of home and invest more time in their relationships with their parents and siblings through texting and social media.
Nineteen-year-old Youngest Brother recently started college in upstate New York, six hours away from us. I’ve been giving him space to adjust, being unsure as to how our family in general and I in particular fit into his new college life. In this season, older siblings are sometimes considered an asset, sometimes an embarrassment, and I figured I’d wait and see which one I was and take my cues from there.
The verdict came last month when Mom and I went to upstate New York to visit Grandpa and help him with various errands and medical appointments. Our itinerary also included visiting Youngest Brother, whose school is about an hour away from where Grandpa lives.
We drove to his campus early in the week and took him out to lunch between classes. Youngest Brother talked with us about his heavy workload and the expectations of his professors. While he was pleased to see us and enjoyed our company, he was also anxious to return to campus.
It’s a feeling I remember well from my own college years – that daily, generalized sense of panic over having a lot to do and limited time in which to do it. Want to make a college student spontaneously combust? Take them off campus in between classes in the middle of the week and give them a vague idea of when you might be bringing them back. You could power a small city off the resulting nervous energy.
We were far too kind to do that to Youngest Brother, and we made sure he was back on campus with time to spare before his next class. Mom stocked his dorm room with cereal and snacks and promised to return in a few days with some additional supplies. Youngest Brother asked if I would also be coming back, to which I responded that I would.
When the time came for Mom’s second trip, however, I decided to stay back and take advantage of a quiet day to get some of my work done. I didn’t think it was especially important for me to put in a second appearance, reasoning that Mom and Grandpa would provide more than sufficient companionship for Youngest Brother and that they were probably the people he wanted to see the most anyway. I’m just his big sister, so I figured he wouldn’t mind my absence.
Shortly after they left, my cell phone rang. It was Mom. She had just gotten off the phone with Youngest Brother, having wanted to let him know that she and Grandpa were on their way.
Youngest Brother asked if I was in the car with them and she responded that I was not, having elected instead to stay back and work.
He was not pleased. “What do you mean she’s not with you? Turn around and go get her!”
When Mom said that, I started to cry, partly because I was touched that my presence really did matter to Youngest Brother and partly because I was angry at myself for missing the opportunity to be there for him. College is a crucial testing ground for family relationships. Family members have to make an extra effort to show they care and to be part of their student’s life from a distance while still giving them the space they need. Those who don’t run the risk of jeopardizing that relationship post graduation.
I’ve always told Youngest Brother and Younger Sister that they can reach out to me at any time and I’ll be there for them. (I’m there for Oldest Youngest Brother too, but given our much smaller age difference, I’m not sure I ever vocalized that to him back when he went off to college.) And here I was, about a month into Youngest Brother’s college career, completely negating that promise.
Mom and Grandpa obligingly came back to get me while I took one of the fastest showers I have ever taken and made myself presentable. This time, our arrival coincided with the end of Youngest Brother’s classes for the day (and the week), so after giving him the rest of his supplies, we took him out to dinner.
Given that his birthday was coming up the weekend after our departure and Mom, Grandpa and I were all in attendance, Mom decided to make it Youngest Brother’s official birthday dinner. When we got out of the car at the restaurant, Youngest Brother gave me a big hug and told me how happy he was that I had come with them. Somehow, I managed not to tear up again.
Maintaining family relationships when a child goes off to college can be challenging, especially when you’re an older sibling who wants to respect their freedom while still being supportive. Knowing where you stand makes all the difference.
Which is why when Mom went to see Youngest Brother a third time to drop off some paperwork, I didn’t hesitate to accompany her. I’m not about to miss another opportunity to be there for him.
– Teresa Santoski
Originally published Oct. 6, 2016