For scores of college students across America, winter break is now going on — and on — and on.
Moms and dads flush with excitement in the days leading up to Christmas are now rolling their eyes and creeping around the periphery of their own homes, doing their best to avoid the family room where bodies, clothes, empty water bottles and who knows what else are strewn. The kitchen is buried under a mess not of the parents’ making.
Why is every bath towel we own in his bedroom? Why does the hallway smell like Cheetos?
“I didn’t know we had bourbon-chicken wings,” a dad somewhere in America whispers as he heads upstairs to bed with his wife.
“We don’t,” the mom hisses back, tripping over sneakers the size of canoes. “They ordered out again!”
“When the heck are these kids going back to college?” they whisper to each other a few hours later, at around 2 a.m. Although their 18-year-old son is off their radar when he’s away at school, since he’s home now — the parents wait up.
The immobile bodies littering the family room had somehow revived around midnight, eaten even more at Mom’s All-Nite Free Buffet, and driven away in multiple cars to “hang out” at another house – enjoying circadian rhythms like those of owls or vampires.
There is no morning to kids on break. There is only afternoon and evening. Mornings are spent in blissful slumber; kids awaken only to check texts from friends as they float in. Parents, bleary-eyed, grumble, “Put the pizza boxes in the recycle bin, OK?” as they head out to work — which doesn’t offer a winter break, as it happens.
Meanwhile, home appliances have started to revolt from over-use. The clothes washer is leaking, the dryer has a tinny rattle, the microwave is blinking and the frig is a chaotic mess. It’s a post-apocalyptic household now — and there’s still one week left to go.
Winter break is starting to feel like the movie “Groundhog Day,” or a root canal — or the Ice Age. Will it ever end?
My third son is going to college next year, so I know the drill. At drop-off in September I will be sobbing in the car as we pull away, a clownish sad/happy smile on my face as I try to accept that we will be separated for longer than a weekend.
Did I pack his favorite blanket? Is the economy-size Tylenol bottle, four sets of extra-long bedsheets, and 100 disposable razors enough to last him until he comes home?
I will be checking my phone before we are even off-campus, hoping for a text from this son. An emoji — anything. I’ll take it.
When he arrives home next Christmas, I will hug him and squeeze him and stroke his hair lovingly as he passes by (if he lets me).
By the third week of January, I will be a little different. Why is every towel we own in his bedroom, while we dry off with ratty old beach towels found in the back of the linen closet? Why does the hallway smell like Cheetos? Why, exactly, are we paying so much in tuition when our beloved child has been on our couch for four weeks?
Wistfulness, frustration, and love all swirl up and down and around the gradual process of parents letting go.
“Honestly, it’s nice to have him home, but I’m pretty much losing my mind,” a friend said over coffee about her son’s winter break. “Between gas for his car, data overages for his phone and pizza take-out for his stomach, I won’t be able to afford college next semester!”
Said another mother of college-age kids, “I adore my children. I really do. I smile more when they’re home and my heart is happier. But they’re eating us out of house and home, and they keep crazy hours. Can we please get a little sanity back in this household?”
Some students are lucky enough to work during their three or four weeks home, either for their family business or a friend’s family business. Some babysit, while some tutor; others work odd jobs, while others volunteer. But a big portion of these overgrown children spend hours hanging around, settling happily back into the nest — even if it’s temporary.
For parents, the college years are a four-year ride on an emotional tilt-a-whirl. Wistfulness, frustration, and love swirl up and down and around the process of letting them go. And while it is gradual, it’s over in a flash, too — the wonderful, crazy ride is over, and they have grown up — and away.