I regret not going away for college

betty ming liu Relationships, Travel 14 Comments

Even though my life has had its share of stumbles and bumbles, I have only one true regret: Why did I live at home during those all-important university years? The good news is that helping my daughter shop for a college this fall is giving me some vicarious thrills, insights, comfort — and fresh regrets.

While these feelings have been with me since forever, they are more vivid now because my daughter Gabi is a high school senior.  Between what we learned from my experiences and her own independent nature, we both look forward to her exploring dorm life some day soon. It doesn’t matter if she chooses a school within commuting distance. The girl has got to get away from me…and she can’t wait! Haha.

When I was a high school senior, it never ever crossed my mind to leave the Chinatown nest. First of all,  the idea was scary because I didn’t know where to go. Secondly, my parents raised me to live at home. I don’t ever remember us talking about me going away to school. Which leads to Point #3: I just wasn’t used to thinking for myself.

That’s the core reason for getting outta the house. To move beyond parental range (while benefitting from their financial support) offers a chance to try out different roles, have fun, and do things that Mom and Dad really don’t need to know about.

In staying home, I lost that unique chance to connect with myself and the world in a way that would’ve inspired confidence, experimentation and spontaneity. Of course, I was able to get all of those things for myself much later. But to be young, gorgeous and away at school….! Sigh.

With no personal experience in handling the college selection process, going through it now with Gabi is fascinating and weird. So strange for me to have zero context to drawn on. By the way, the process is EXHAUSTING. All those one-hour walking tours, plus the one-hour lecture/sales pitches.

After our first few visits, we started to know. We could tell what felt right or, at least, possible. In the process, we’ve both gotten excited about Gabi’s opportunities for taking courses, meeting people and being on her own.

I’ve benefited personally too; helping her makes me feel less bereft. Travelling together is also forcing her to spend time with me– haha again! Seriously though, I can’t wait to see what she decides.

In the meantime, this new stage of parenting is giving me a chance to delve into a whole range of emotions. The ability to mother a young woman with all of her moods and priorities is very different from taking care of a little girl. College hunting really has us crossing the line to the other side..

To be honest, I was initially worried about turning into my mom. She responded to my adulthood with jealousy and competitiveness. She was always quick to point out how much more she suffered, or how she worked harder, blah blah. I was afraid I would do that to my Gabi.

But I’m learning. So far, okay. I think.  Fingers crossed.    :)

P.S. — Time really does go so fast. If you’ve got kids in your house, make the most of the good moments when you’re not screaming at each other. This is what we looked like when my little cherub was a deliciously huggable baby.

Comments 14

  1. The talk about going away to college was never discussed with me, either. I was just encouraged to study nursing and my mother assumed I was going to apply to a city university. She was already disappointed that I hadn’t graduated from the high school of her choice.

    I have said many times that I didn’t go away to college, but I went away to high school. I left my Brooklyn neighborhood and ventured out to Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan. After school, I walked up and down the Theater District or took the train with my friends to Chinatown, the Village, or sometimes friends’ houses in Flushing or Long Island City.

    I always had to come home. I mean, I had HW to finish (did most of it on the train), staying out too late would cause my mother to get suspicious, and I would get hungry. I didn’t have an allowance and rarely any money for a snack after school. But our friends would pool money together for everyone to get something. (I would still be hungry at times, because we would often have drinks, but they bought McDonald’s food and I didn’t eat that).

    It was a great experience that could’ve been upgraded by boarding at a college. But I never let myself get caught up with that idea. My mother constantly reminded me that she was a single parent with 4 kids, snuffing out the possibility of dreaming.
    Yearrs later, after dropping out of a university, I would re-enroll at a commuunity college. While freelancing, I tried to get a job at an independent newspaper. I

  2. Felt really good when the editor said that he liked my clips. He was leafing through them with a ”wow” look on his face. He was smiling. I thought this was IT. As he looked over my resume, I saw him get stuck on the education section. He frowned. He looked at me and then told me that he could probably use me as an intern instead. He hadn’t realized I was still in school. He looked at my clips again and said, ”Why didn’t you go away to college?”

    I don’t remember my response, but I remembered fumbling over my words, trying to find an excuse or explanation. I felt hot, cold, dizzy, embarrassed. Ashamed. I thought going back to school as a single parent was a positive move. And now, a complete stranger was poking at why I hadn’t gone to school earlier or put myself in campus life. I recognized the unbelief and disappointment and half-smirk on his face. Having the same cultural background, it was as though he thought I wasted time or he expected more from me. He didn’t know me. But I guess everyone from ”back home” must be related. Maybe because we had the same background and had a similar upbringing and he himself found away to attend college out of state, he looked at me as a fruitless person for not doing the same? I felt judged but more so ridiculed. I tried to tell him what I was trying to do at the moment. But he thought at my age, at the time, I should have long finished grad school.

    I thought I found a lot of myself while away at high school. But I , unfortunately, allowed someone to take a shot and challenge that one day.

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    Skye, you can get over this! People say stupid things. And you will get a lot out of being a good mom to your kid. It’s not about living through them — that would be poison and we know what that’s like. It’s about the healing that parenting can sometimes offer. The gaping hole gets filled with other things.

    I actually talked to my shrink about this post during my session earlier today. So great to be in therapy — because I have more clarity through explaining everything to him. First of all, he said to beware of romanticizing what going away can offer. And secondly, he said the most important thing Gabi must do is find a community that she vibes to. Once she finds her people, everything else will fall into place.

    The other issue for me is that I too, was raised by a single mom because my dad died when I was 19. That definitely factored into the decision to not go away and leave Mom home alone. But what I lost as a young American-born woman was the chance to interact with others in a totally Western culture setting.

    The easy mixing of men and women on campus would’ve done wonders for my social skills and development. Instead, I came of age in a very Eastern world where men were a distant species. Oh well!

    In my attempts to understand American college life, there is a big eraser where my heart should be. I’m just a blank because I never lived it. But there are ways to get what I need. The ability to recover and flourish are now elements of joy in my everyday life. :)

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    Oh, one other very good piece of practical advice from my shrink for parents of prospective college students: be clear on financial and other limitations.

    Avoid telling your child, “You can go anywhere you want.” Because what if your kid picks a school and then you said it’s not possible due to finances, distance or a combo of issues? You’re “no” creates a sense of resentment that will leave the kid feeling like they are settling. Makes it very hard to set things right after that. Hmmm.

  5. Hi Betty, thanks for your response. I don’t think I feel as bad over the editor’s attitude as I did before. But it stung for a long time. I knew I had to drop out of college to work. And that is the reality for many people. A few years later, I had a child, so school wasn’t an immediate option. Factor in other life issues and, well, it just wasn’t anybody’s business unless this person was actually interested in my well-being instead of being snooty. Point is, I did what I had to do for my life when I had to do it. Thanks for your support. It feels good when that day comes back to my memory.

    Also, I think your therapist is right on about your daughter finding the right community. I think that makes the difference in getting through life, period. College life is no different. She needs people she can be herself with, have a good time with, and people to hold her accountable to her goals. And someone to remind her to call home once in a while:)

    As far as being up front about financial or other limitations when children are selecting colleges, very good advice. Be up front with them! It will keep them from resenting their decisions as well as the parent footing the bill. Tell your kids what you can afford, or what state you can send them to, etc., and give them free reign within those borders. If you expect your children to get a part-time job or have a set allowance, tell them that as well, I think.

  6. Betty,
    I have been off line for a few weeks due to running out of money before month. I was delighted to come back to a subject that I can really relate to. My experience is unique in many ways. I attended a quarter at a local University ben then I got a calling to spend a two year mission in London England. While in England I lived in six different cities, including London’s west end and had several companions including one from Stavanger, Norway. I also worked closely with an Israeli and Swiss missionary. I worked in the mission office for several months under a mission President that was a Vice President of Husky Oil. (He told me one day that they offered him the position of Chairman of the Board and told me that “after all of those years struggling to get to the top of the company to finally TURN THEM DOWN was one of the biggest thrills I have ever had!”)

    After I returned my options for school away from home were limited to going back to a local University was the option I fell into quickly especially since I married a girl from England and we had a son. We lived with my Grandfather for most of those years in his basement. This is what my parents did when they were first married so the basement was set up as an independent living space a kitchen and shower. There was even a spare room where her sister was able to stay in when she visited. There were the remains of an up-right piano in the room which we threw a tarp over. Grand Pa was a Master Tuner-examiner from when he retired from teaching until he died.

    I was divorced before I finished my two degrees. After graduation I joined the Navy. This led to more schools…

    So could have, would have, should have… do I have regrets? No, I have lived a full life. One thing that is going to hit you when you leave home is “Culture Shock”. I remember the first time it really hit me was when I was transferring to a New City in England. I was sitting at a train station between trains and thinking “I really AM in a strange country” They told us in training that we would experience it. I think that is when then told us the story about guy that was rely struggling with it what he was doing until he came to a house that had a sign in front that said “Who ere thou art, act well thy part” The point here is that a lot of kids get away from home and sort of get lost when they run into other kids that don’t have good values. I think I have been very fortunate to be with some very good people. As it turns out, the University I graduated from in Math was listed as tenth in the nation, number one for public schools and number one on improvements by the American Mathematical Society.

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  7. My great aunt Lupy’s daughter, Eggletina, went away to college and it was a testimony to her determination to overcome handicaps. The child was born with a terrible birth defect – one ear – I mean, that’s all there was of her – a ten pound ear. Deaf as a post too. Lupy did her best to give the child as normal a life as possible – as you do for a “special” child – though I do think insisting she have a coming out ball when she was 18 was a mistake. I mean, seeing the poor withered ear (and, lacking a full range of life support systems as ears do, it had dried up a bit) wrapped in a couple of yards of white satin, being dragged across the dance floor on a clothes line was pathetic – and none of the boys wanted to dance with her. Some of the cousins did their duty because their mothers made them, but it wasn’t a success. Anyway, after that, it was decided she should go away – anyplace really – college, an asylum, a dog pound – it really didn’t matter. Lupy was very broad-minded about it. Finally they enrolled her in Dr. Edison’s College of Internal Medicine & Upholstery at 28 Front Street, Worcester, Mass, (three flights up – no elevator) They agreed to keep her in a box there for four years, at the end of which she was awarded a perfect attendance pin and mailed home. Lupy had passed away by that time so we decided to institutionalize the child. It was for the best. I put her in a drawer in the cellar. We bring her out at Christmas and pin a big red bow on her lobe with the perfect attendance pin. She looks – well – not lovely exactly – but the pin does give her a certain status among the intelligentsia. Otherwise she stays in the cellar. It’s always a relief every year when we bring her out, to see the rats haven’t got to her yet.

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  8. I think you’re are doing excellent as a mother. You’re supporting your daughter in every way and learning with her as she is learning.

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      Thank you, Alejandra! I am indeed learning a lot from my daughter’s experience. She is having the time of her life! And this upcoming weekend is Family Weekend on campus. So I will spend some time there. Very excited about it. :)

  9. I understand making the financial situation clear but I don’t think you should ever limit your child(ren) on where they want to attend school, it’s realistic but so is the possibility that you don’t have to pay for you child’s education and that’s a whole different situation there! Just a note to consider.

  10. And I agree with Alejandra’s point about college. I think you can be realistic with your kids and tell them what you can and can’t afford. I think you can also let them know that life is bigger than just their parents’ abilities. Encourage them to work hard, get scholarships, or work through school, if needed. Tell them that their dreams are worth working for and though it would be nice for Mom and Dad to help, a dream shouldn’t be missed because parents just can’t make it happen. I think we can allow children to grow and take responsibility for their dreams and goals. I also believe in never giving up and in miracles. My kid has experienced that! He dreamt up a world even better than I thought of for him, and he gets to live in it. That still anazes me. I learn from him when I need courage to dream again.

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