Since the huge, life changing conversation with my dad I have been looking back at so many things and realizing that my perspective was uninformed. I’m also not sure if I applied a filter after the fact. So far the results have been very interesting and it’s made me realize that it’s very easy to make assumptions about people and not give the grace that we all need.
The first big event that I have reframed and reprocessed was the first phone call I made to my parents after they dropped me off at college. The day they dropped me off was painful. As much as they annoyed me, I was still very dependent on them for everything. I did and do love them. I spent the whole day crying on and off. My dad also teared up once or twice. The college had move-in events like a picnic and various presentations for students and parents. After the lunch bbq, my brother made the observation that we were just torturing ourselves, and he and my parents should leave after we finished eating to just bite the bullet.
My parents agreed. We had a tearful goodbye in my room and then they went out to the parking lot. I stood in the window waving and crying like some stupid Hallmark movie. They waved and got in the car and drove away. At that same moment, there was knock on the door and my roommate answered it. I heard a voice say they were looking for me so I wiped my eyes and turned around. It was a sophomore from the soccer team, which I was going to play on. She introduced herself and then took me somewhere I can’t recall anymore. It might’ve been lunch, her room, her floor one above mine in the dorms where several soccer players lived, or the gym for a meeting. She was nice and understanding about how hard drop off was that first time. She and my roommate made that day bearable.
For the rest of orientation/pre-season for soccer, I was really busy. We had three a day practices for soccer and tons of orientation events. The only reason you could miss soccer practice was illness, injury, or orientation event. I cannot remember what day classes started, but I remember that I made this call on a Tuesday or Thursday after I had chemistry. I was overwhelmed and unsure how I could play soccer with all the games and two hour practices every afternoon, studying, reading, eating, and sleeping. After chemistry, I talked to another freshman teammate about feeling overwhelmed. I was taking calculus and chemistry, she was taking biology and chemistry and neither of us could see how we could do it all.
I went back to the dorm and called my parents for some advice. When they picked up, I said hello and then told them how scared I was that I wouldn’t be able to play soccer and get everything done for classes. I wanted to talk this out with adults because I was unsure about my own capabilities. Even though I had survived my senior year with AP classes, an almost full schedule, marching band 4 times a week during football/competition season, and a job where I worked a minimum of 20 hours a week. I remember staying up late to get homework done that year. But living by myself in a dorm room made it feel different to me. Now I was having to create my own structure and routine, get myself to classes, eat, play soccer all on my own. Without someone telling me what to do, I only had the structure of class times, practice and game times, and my own stomach. I was terrified I couldn’t handle all of this.
My parents listened to me and then my father said “They told us at the parents meeting that we needed to give you the space to be an adult and make your own decisions and that’s what we are going to do. Goodbye.”
And then they hung up the phone. I stood on the other side of that line, holding the receiver and sobbing. I felt abandoned. I was really overwhelmed, scared, and just needed a pep talk and to talk things out with someone way more experienced. And they hung up on me.
What happened is that the other student I talked to mentioned to a senior captain on the team that both she and I were considering quitting. The other student and the senior were both goalies, so they talked about it at a practice. The next day at lunch, I felt someone grab my chair and pull my chair away from the table. It was the senior captain. She pulled me all the way over to the senior table and I was surrounded by all the senior soccer players. She was kind of scary and said (loudly) “Why do you want to quit?” I’m 99.9% sure my chin quivered and I looked like I was going to cry. I didn’t want to make a big deal about this with the team. Then she got her knees and begged me to stay on the team. She promised me that I could do it all and said that everyone worries like this their first season. She said she was worried, but she made it. She promised that I would have lots of time to read in the van when we had away games and if I couldn’t read while riding in a car, she could put me in a “studious room” on our away trips. She said everyone does classwork on away trips and once I settled into a good routine, I would see how easy it can be.
I didn’t quit and I played all four years of soccer, plus lacrosse all four years, and then I swam competitively for one season. Sports was the highlight of my college experience. I made so many friends, laughed really hard in the van, saw some cool places once we joined a conference with schools near Washington, DC, and loved every minute of all those sports seasons.
The problem was that my dad loved to tell that story. He seemed proud of abandoning me and every time he told it, all I could remember was him saying goodbye and the dead air on the line. And how heartbroken I felt because I was all alone. How could he be proud of just leaving me like that and not supporting me more?
Enter our recent, big talk. One of the things he said that he had never told me was that he didn’t handle leaving me at college very well. He said home didn’t feel the same without me and it took him a long time to get over me being gone, pretty much for good. I would never live at home full time again (which wasn’t true, but I know his sense of loss was too great to realize that I would be back for holidays and summers and one unexpected year in my 20s.) I had no idea he had struggled so much with leaving me like that. He never, ever told me that.
Armed with this knowledge, I recalled that terrible conversation about quitting soccer and how he hung up on me without helping. I remembered all the times he bragged about how they let me be an adult. And then I realized all the pride he felt recounting the story was for him. It had nothing to do with me and everything to do with him feeling like he was doing the right thing by letting go. He felt like he was taking a huge step in moving forward towards his life as an eventual empty nester. That made me realize that I don’t need to feel a way about him recounting that story from his perspective. And although I felt abandoned at the time, perhaps that was the cut we both needed for me to start growing up and depending on my own instincts to find my way myself.
So now when he tells that story, I can be proud of the way he let go and how it forced me to start figuring things out myself. There was no violent rejection or abandonment with that phone call. It was just a dad, suppressing his urge to drive to college to sit his child down and help them figure it all out. And it was a child who desperately needed some space to learn how to make hard decisions on their own, but might cling to their dad if he allowed it. It was truly a beautiful, life changing, but hard moment for both of them.