The College Mirage: Helping your freshman navigate the first year

Last year at about this time of year a student came to see me. She was a new freshman and, a week or two into her shiny, sparkly college life she was feeling neither shiny or sparkly. While she was loving college in general, in some ways things weren't working out the way she had expected--her roommate wasn't her soul sister, there weren't endless dates, her class load required a lot more work than she had needed to do in high school, and she was still figuring out how to find her way in this new place. In some ways, the shiny sparkly college life felt like a mirage--one that had been the promised land all through high school and one that all of her friends on social media seemed to inhabit.

 photo via

photo via

I've been thinking a lot about college transition and freshman loneliness ever since--as a professor who studies & teaches human development, as an advisor to freshmen students, and as a mom to three college-age students.

We tend to prepare our children for college like getting in is the hard part, the finish line. After lavishing all that energy and attention on those entrance exams, applications, GPA maintenance, extracurriculars, no wonder they internalize the message that once you receive that acceptance letter, you've made it! Everything else will fall into place! Books, tv, movies, social media all highlight and glorify the golden glow of the college years. But, like most things in life, the reality often doesn't live up to the hype. 

Meanwhile, if they want to, new freshmen can manage to keep up the image that the hype lives on, curating photos and posts and emoji-adorned texts to downplay the real emotions and loneliness (or even depression and anxiety) that might be happening beyond the tiny phone screen. 

Just at the point when parents begin to acclimate to their child's absence in the home, across the miles for many freshmen students, the orientation parties and excitement of meeting all these new people wears off. The reality of the academic workload sets in and some students manage this better than others. Some sail through pretty well but many don't want to disappoint their families that their grades are lower than they've grown used to getting in high school or that they still haven't found their tribe.  

Last year, Cornell freshman Emery Burgmann created this video about her college transition for a class assignment on transformation. It's a funny, poignant window into the freshman transition ("I feel like this friendship-hungry gremlin...") and the Youtube comments on this clip attest to how common these feelings are:

We parents are pretty good at prepping our kids' dorm rooms and outfitting them with the school supplies they'll need. Just as important (arguably more so), having family conversations leading up to the college launch can ease everyone's social/emotional acclimation to this huge milestone.  We can paint a realistic view of what this next level of study and life will look like rather than glorifying (or trying to live vicariously). In the months and years leading up to the transition to college, try to have open conversations that are sparked by questions like these:

  • What kind of living/dorm situation will open you up to connecting with others (single occupancy rooms might seem ideal but they can also lead to isolation)?
  • What will you/can you do when you're lonely (because everyone feels lonely sometimes, especially during transitions)?
  • What if you get overwhelmed with the workload?
  • What resources are available on campus for talking to a trustworthy, informed adult?
  • How will we stay connected so you can share your good times but also your struggles?
  • What are the signs you can watch for to check on your emotional wellbeing and mental health?
  • Did you know you can drop a class? Or withdraw from one, even, if things get overwhelming?
  • How will you let me know if you are really really struggling (some families even have a family signal word that means "help!")?
  • How will you navigate roommate differences and disagreements?
  • What activities can balance out your schedule or provide an outlet for stress, anxiety?

If you're the parent of a college student right now:

  • emphasize that friends are made gradually and it's completely normal to feel at sea during a big transition. It often takes years to find your "tribe."
  • just listen, hear, and validate the emotions. You don't need to solve the problems, just be a guide through them. Share your own hard experiences and how you navigated them (but first just listen listen listen).
  • make time to Skype/Facetime/Marco Polo and talk on the phone. Texts are marvelous for check-ins and logistics but can be misleading, minimize, or mask real emotions. If possible build in a set time each week to really connect.

Interested in reading more? Check out:

  • The Real Campus Scourge by Frank Bruni (New York Times). Emily references this article in the video above; it's the article her mom sent her.
  • What Made Maddy Run (by Kate Fagan), a heart breaking and eye opening book looking into the death by suicide of U Penn star athlete Maddy Halloran. For a shorter peek, try this NPR story and this podcast with author Kate Fagan's insights and takeaway messages.
  • Practicing mindfulness has been linked to healthy college transition. Another study here.  
  • Great tips here for college students, including keep your door open and spend as little time as possible in your room--hang out in common areas and study in the library.

What do you wish you knew when you started college? What helped with the transition? What didn't?

Ahoy! A catch up

Hello, N+L friends. It's been a minute (or a million), hasn't it?!  What a ride January-July 2017 was! Humbling and wonderful and exhausting and faith-blooming and stretchy and rewarding and can-I-do-this and yes.

I finished my inaugural profess-ing semester in May and, between that and our international move and the changes in our family I just now feel like I'm emerging from a cave into the bright sunlight. (I was going to say cocoon but I'm not sure I can claim the majesty of a butterfly at this point.) 

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A quick catch up on the cast of characters in my family life: 

As I mentioned back here, in our new setup G works in DC during the week (with, thankfully, every other Friday off).  Although we thought we would alternate spending weekends in DC and Lexington, G looks forward to getting out of the city so much that we pretty much have made Lexington our consistent home base even when (during the summer) we have both been in DC all week together. He's been traveling internationally every six weeks or so for work which has brought a new dimension to his career. We love our time together--it's definitely helped us to not take the other for granted. Life is good, y'all. Mostly, truly incandescently good. 

Lauren and Patrick live in Atlanta where they've just bought their first home, a condo in a neighborhood they love. Lauren's been doing online coursework toward her sociology degree; recently she's decided to just bite the bullet and go back to BYU for a semester to wrap it all up and graduate in December. It'll be tough to be apart for a few months but I'm proud of them both for making it a priority. She's been teaching early morning seminary and doing some good nanny gigs for several families in the area, too. 

Maddy just returned from Ghana, where she did a 3-month summer internship in microfinance. She and three other studetns lived in a village and traveled around the area, supporting and training small business owners. She had some cool and unique experiences--lively music and dancing at a series of Ghanaian funerals and listening to the fisherman sing as they pull in their nets and gleeful children dancing in rainstorms and navigating chicken soup with every part of the chicken floating in the bowl. She's back at USU this week and has a full semester ahead.

Speaking of Africa, this spring Sam received his mission call to Angola (on the west coast of Africa) and left in July for six weeks at the training center, arriving this last Friday in Luanda. The six months leading up to his mission were unforgettably dear ones. Six weeks in, we still miss him d e e p l y and yet feel simultaneously blessed by and proud of his service. I love our letters back and forth and the window they are to his mind and heart. Still, I'm in denial about how long two years will be. I just don't let myself go there yet. 

I will say this: I miss resident mothering. I have lots of thoughts on this post-parenting transition that I'll share in coming posts. Here's the deal: It's part wonderful and part heart wrenching and part lonely and part exhilarating and all completely part of the process, as much of the motherhood story as baby showers and childbirth classes are--except we don't get parties or classes or what-to-expect-when-you're guidebooks about this side of things. We need more preparation and candor about this part of the path and if I can find the words to articulate some, I'll be happy to plant a few guideposts on the map to help anyone else navigate this liminal space.

Also, I just really miss this. How are you? How's your heart at the end of this summer? What are you hatching and nesting and launching these days? Do tell--I've got a lot of bandwidth to hear about it these days :)

To Fresh Starts

Happy November! I'm writing this from an all-but-empty house here in Australia, where we're capping off the last four weeks of our 51-month adventure. The movers came a month ago and packed all of our earthly belongings into a shipping container to put on a slow boat bound for the US. (It's probably around the horn of Africa right about now, don't you think? I'm kicking myself for not packing a little GPS beacon in with our stuff to check in on it now and then. Wouldn't that be cool?) 

In the meantime we rented a few pieces of furniture to hold us over for the final couple of months--a table, a sofa and loveseat, two beds, and a desk and chair for Sam's studying as he takes his final IB exams this month and finishes high school. (Oh, and a ROWING MACHINE because why not? I've always wanted one. Side note: turns out rowing machines are not magic rides of joy. It's still exercise but it's not bad.) 

I keep reminding myself that while the empty house is a persistent reminder of a bittersweet ending, it also represents a Fresh Start--a capitalized, PART THREE declaration between the chapters of what came before and those that encompass the unknowns ahead.

 Light on the Bulbs, Carol Marine

Light on the Bulbs, Carol Marine

In the book of our marriage, PART ONE: dating and giddy early marriage; PART TWO: parent bootcamp years and full time family life; PART THREE: is.....what? (Can we agree it's not a married couple of a certain age holding hands and watching the sunset, each sitting in his/her own (mystifyingly outdoor) bathtubs?) I'm excited about Part Three. We planned our early parenthood start with Part Three in mind. I went to grad school with Part Three in mind. I just don't know how to summarize it yet. And that's the beauty, I guess. We get to make it up. 

With this move we've crafted a new plan of what our next few years (or decades?) will look like, based on a few priorities from a lifetime collection of wishes. We've found a delightful-but-scruffy vintage home to fix up (paging Chip and Joanna, stat) in a charming college town and accepted new jobs that excite us both. It's a Part Three for us as a couple but also for each of us as individuals. We've considered and accepted some unique trade-offs to our new arrangement--working three hours away from each other being the major one--but also feel the sweet assurance of "it's-going-to-be-fine" peace (even if it perplexes some of our onlookers a bit; sorry, worried onlookers, we love you! ). The unknown can be scary. But I feel confident in our trust of each other and in those peaceful, prayerful feelings enough to brave the first steps into this Fresh (but unknown) Start.

I came upon this poem yesterday that lit up my brain. I taped it to my empty wall with some leftover masking tape. It's by the wonderful poet William Stafford, who incidentally didn't publish poetry until he was 46. Maybe that was his Part Three. 

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found: carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life.

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?

-William Stafford

Do you have a looming fresh start? How do you feel about your Part Three (or four or six...)?

Wedding Mantras for Mothers of the Bride

Over the string of months that I held mother-of-the-bride status, I adopted a few mantras to help me keep the crazy under control. These came in handy, say, when I would lie awake and sift through the midnight mental flotsam that would wash ashore in a panic of what-ifs and to-dos. Or when the low-grade stress of helping to coordinate a wedding weekend from the other side of the world eroded the joy of the whole thing. These are mindset reboots I found helpful rather than specific tips on planning a wedding--although at some point I'm sure Sarah and I will share some hints & lessons learned along with some of the details from both weddings. So here are my notes to self, wedding mantras to remember for next time. I didn't master them but they were helpful reminders:

Love, love, love: Invoke this mantra often. This whole wedding undertaking is ultimately about celebrating the love, marriage, and sprouting of a little two-person seedling of a family. Try and infuse the process with love--from your hundreds of coordinating texts & chats with your daughter to your communications with all of the families, your interactions with vendors, and your deliberations about the budget. Let go of the pressure to plan a perfect Pinterest wedding-to-impress and focus on creating an atmosphere where the couple and their guests will feel the love. They'll all remember how they felt that day much longer than they'll remember any little nitty gritty detail, anyway. 

She's the president, I'm the chief of staff: (i.e., Let it go/it's not my wedding): It's hard. In some ways this feels like familiar territory--like another party you're throwing for your child, kind of a birthday/graduation celebration on steroids. You might be used to calling the shots and making all the choices. But...it's not your wedding. Even if you're paying the invoices, it's still not your wedding. Follow your daughter's lead on how much involvement and advice to give.  She's the president, you're the chief of staff. (Also, related mantra: it's his wedding, too.)

Tiny scene in a long play: You're starting out a brand new relationship with a new son and your daughter's inlaws, don't start it with hassles over some little wedding details. The wedding day comes and goes but their marriage will last much much longer than that. Not only that, but this wedding marks the beginning of a new configuration of your own family, with a new son joining your crew forever more. When it comes down to it, choose to invest in building positive relationships over clashing or gnashing teeth on the logistics of party planning. After all...

It's just a party: This helped rein in my wedding anxiety sometimes. Hey, it's just a party! One night with friends and family. It's a big party but still. Just a party. Don't give in to the crazy.

The arrow has flown: I remember a few days before I got married my mom came home from someone else's reception and said "Annie!  we forgot to order the paper napkins with your names embossed on them!" (These were popular then. Are they still a thing? If so, we forgot to order them this time, too.) Meh. At that point the wedding arrow had left the bow and was on its way to the target; there was no point in chasing it down. Likewise, at a certain point you've done all the planning and arranging.  If something pops up in the last few days, fix it and/or forget it. It's time to just let the plan unfold and ENJOY IT. The arrow has flown. 

Serenity now!: Just kidding. That's the Seinfeld mantra. But it's a good generic one in a pinch.

What else? I'd love to add more mantras to my supply. What mantras have helped you in times of stress/planning/weddings?

photo by Chelsie Starley Photography

Throwback Thursday: On letting go

Every time I think I have this "letting go" thing down, it bounces right up and smacks me in the face. I've had plenty of occasions to write about my girls moving out and moving on (See here and here). In fact, daughter #3 has, just in the past week, signed up for her dorm room -- meaning we are on the official move-out-countdown. "It's okay," I tell myself. "It's good." "It's normal."

Yesterday, I was anxiously awaiting the Postwoman because I was expecting Jordan's wedding invitations. (Yes! I'm invited to my own daughter's wedding!) Actually, she's handled the ordering and addressing and stamping all from Utah, so while we have talked about these invitations ad infinitum, I had yet to see them in real life (IRL). Finally, at about 5:30, the post arrived. And it was there! A shimmering, dark green envelope just sitting in my mailbox. I grabbed it and raced inside. I opened it carefully, pulled the cards out and read each line carefully.

At the same time the television was on in the background. After reading through the invitation I swung around to see Cookie Monster, advertising the new Siri On-Demand feature. Instantly, I was reminded of an incident involving a two-year-old Jordan and Cookie Monster:

When Jordan and Madison were wee babes they were obsessed with the Sesame Street characters. They watched the show, played pretend Sesame Street, talked about Elmo endlessly. So, when I saw an advertisement that the Sesame Street characters were coming to Sea World, I decided we would put what little vacation money we could scrape together towards a trip to San Antonio. My babies needed to see Big Bird. Once in the park, we attended the scheduled Sesame Street show, wherein the larger-than-life characters danced and sang. When the show ended, I just knew Jordan would want to see the characters up close and personal. She seemed reticent about actually approaching them, so I swung her up on my hip and marched to the front of the theater. Jordan was mesmerized. I was mentally patting myself on the back for making my baby's dreams come true.

As I held her, I pointed out Big Bird. And Ernie. And Elmo. And then Cookie Monster started moving right towards us! "How lucky!" I thought. Cookie Monster approached Jordan and reached out to pat her little tummy. As those furry blue fingers met her little strawberry romper, Jordan let out a primal scream. She arched her back and almost seemed to convulse for a moment. I did my best to keep her from flailing to the ground and quickly retreated.

She was inconsolable. She cried. And sobbed. And after a good five minutes, she finally looked me in the eye and screamed out, "Cookie Monster touched me!" Her rage was part fear and part blame. How could I have allowed such a travesty to occur? For the next hour or so she inhaled raggedly, muttering to herself, "Cookie Monster touched me." Honestly, I'm surprised she didn't require some type of trauma counseling. We did hug on her a lot and promised a Cookie Monster restraining order. Over time, the "Cookie Monster touched me" mantra became somewhat of a catch phrase, reminding us of those moments when our kids needed an extra hug and some added protection.

It's difficult for me to convey here how this memory tore me open inside. Maybe it's the realization that I'm no longer in charge of making her dreams come true. Maybe it's a mourning for the loss of that sweet little baby girl. Maybe it's an understanding that I'm not her sole protector, that my role in her life is moving further and further to the periphery. I'm sure it's a combination of these factors. But it hurts.  And there's nothing for me to do about it, except to feel this uncomfortable pit in my stomach and to write about that glorious, spunky baby of mine.

Mapping what's next: Questions to ask

Lately I feel a bit like I'm sitting at the far edge of the map I've created for the last 20+ years of my life. The old map and globe makers supposedly used to say (or not) about the mysteries beyond the border "here be dragons." For me, there aren't dragons, really, just a few unknown seas and a considerable amount of horizon. As Dante said at the beginning of his masterpiece Inferno "Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, For the straight forward pathway had been lost."  

Until now, the life I've pieced together has been filled with my own projects and pursuits and, at the same time, considerably oriented in time and energy around the raising of a family. Two things happen this year that will rock that geography : (1) Sam will finish high school and set off, ending my stint as a resident in-house mother, and (2) we will move back to the states to a place yet to be determined. 

[Watch me get all themey with this map metaphor: For years I've navigated the Cape of Good Naps, weathered the tantrum tempests, the Sea of Puberty, and the Straits of Discipline. I've helped build new boats, furnished them with the anchors and navigation systems that have worked for us, and launched our small fleet.]  So: fresh start. Clean slate. Edge of the map. The question that's been on my mind lately is what's next? who do I want to be for the rest of (or at least next part of) my life?

It's a theme I hear frequently from my friends and our readers; whether or not they have been working full time, part time, or staying at home, this transition is fascinating and altering and opens up possibilities with whole new landscapes to navigate. I'm not just talking vocation here--though that could certainly be part of it--also pursuits and hobbies, things to learn, places to visit, projects to take on, contributions to make.  

Here's one step I recently took toward figuring these things out, an exercise at the intersection of first, know thyself and when in doubt, make a list. Earlier this year on a night when G and Sam were on a camping trip, I sat down with my notebooks spread out on the bed and started to sort out my thoughts on this whole what's next situation. I made long lists answering a host of questions to start a conversation with myself (planning + lists = my happy place).

Maybe you know exactly what's next for you. If so, high five and enjoy your fantastic map!  If, like me, you're also starting to dream/scheme/imagine/anticipate what might be next for you, here's your gentle, borderland-dwelling assignment: Answer these questions for yourself, with compassion and honesty about who you are and who you want to be. Don't stop too long to analyze as you write, just nudge all of those ideas to go mingle together on the lists.  (Bonus: These could work for helping older kids and young adults figure out what's next for them, too): 

What do I love doing?

What do I love thinking about/talking about? 

What/whom do I envy? (This can be an illuminating insight. If you feel jealous of what someone does, it's probably because it's something you wish you could do!)

What am I good at/do people say I do well? 

In what kinds of settings would those things be useful, fun, or welcome?

What would I like to still improve?

What will I let go trying to improve and just accept/embrace/learn to love about myself? 

What do I typically avoid or try to delay doing?

What might I love (given some experience/time/mentoring)?

What do I want my life to include more of/be known for?

Who are my heroes, mentors + cool people to emulate? What do they have in common?

What attributes and dreams did I used to have that I'd like to recapture (i.e., will the original version of Annie please stand up?) 

What do you think--any questions you'd add to these? I'd love to hear from any of you who are mulling over the what's next question--feel free to chime in here or email me.  I'll be back to chat about further what's next steps in future posts.

One is not two (or three)

First there were just the two of us, G and I, living on love and baked potatoes in those early years. For the most part, a world of two. A cocoon, really. Then came Lauren and we happily adjusted our tethers a bit (ha! or a lot) to fasten her in and form a family of three. Then Maddy and, a little later, Sam arrived and we multiplied the bonds of our web, adding new sibling strands that were separate from but connected to the marriage and parenting ones. Each time, more connections meant more conflict, more energy, more chaos, more silliness, more work, more joy. Sometimes in the throes of adjusting we would look at each other and despair: "What have we done?!" mourning the version of life we left behind.

 Photos by Luca Zordan, found  here

Photos by Luca Zordan, found here

You know where I'm going with this. We've maxed out the "one-little two-little three-little" song and now we're subtracting. We're shrinking! It's a different business shrinking a family rather than growing one. You still adjust as a group, take on new roles. Someone new gets to be the "oldest child" for a while.  But where before you adjusted to something new that was added, now you adjust to having something crucial that was subtracted. Some days it just feels like the family fabric has simply extended over mountains and oceans--stretched, sure, but in tact. Other days it feels like there's a gaping, whistling hole in the everyday fabric of our days. Where before there were moments of "what have we done?!" now there are moments of "what shall we do?" mourning the version of life we left behind.

 photo by  Luca Zordan

photo by Luca Zordan

So we've started our third family--or sixth?--depending on how you count. This new family, the one currently under our roof now that Maddy has launched like a second family satellite--far away but still orbiting--this little family is quieter than the others. More independent. There's less laundry, fewer dishes in the sink, fewer rides and appointments and places to be, no more need for Costco (!). For the first time, I'm outnumbered, genderly speaking. This makes me feel kind of queenly but also who will watch period dramas with me now? The boys (that's how I think of my at-home family now, "the boys") outnumber me but, perhaps the strangest feeling of all, the adults outnumber the kids again for the first time since 1995. Our silly quotient has taken a dive without those contagiously hilarious moments between siblings. Now there are no siblings here, just a guy and his parents! I like to think we are pretty fun people, G and I, but still.  I miss our maximum silliness that is achieved only when everyone's here. Fewer under-one-roof connections means less conflict, less energy, less chaos, less work, more nostalgia. (Oh, the nostalgia!)

I fully confess that these are first world mama problems of the highest magnitude. I remember the days--years, really--when receiving a prison sentence of solitary confinement sounded like a pretty attractive way to live compared to the never-ending touching/eating/rocking/chasing/wiping/calming/feeding demands of a younger family still in the throes of heavy duty bootcamp parenting.  I think of dear friends whose children didn't live long enough to launch or who didn't arrive in the family when hoped for or as expected. Others have children who will always be with them for physical or emotional or other reasons. 

And, really,  I know this family gig continues for all of us. The revolving door revolves, bringing folks out and back in, and we are fixtures in each other's lives forever. But the in-house, full time setting with all my people at home together feels like such a whirring blip of time in retrospect. When I came across this passage last weekend, I underlined it and put a star in the margin to share with you. Whether your child is in kindergarten this year or 10th grade or college, you will understand all the layers--one through sixteen--of these sentiments:

"Dave was fifth in the straggled line of returnees, running easily, neither trying for a dramatic finish nor easing up, but finishing just behind the lead pack of three seniors and the tall thin sophomore. Dave's dad watched with a complex mix of feelings--unutterable pride in this son (that kid was two years old two minutes ago, and look at him now those scything legs!), a sigh that he was so damned skinny (how can he possibly compete against those kids--they are twice as thick as he is...he looks like a heron running with deer), worry about him not being dressed properly (aw, a sleeveless shirt and shorts in snow for heaven's sake), and deepest of all, beyond any words he could have summoned to drape on the feeling, a sense of impending loss and the cruelty of time and the yaw of mortality.

"Very soon, all too soon, Dave would go away--college, work, the navy, traveling, who knew? And while his dad, from layers one through fifteen of his soul, was delighted and thrilled and proud and happy that this would happen, pleased that things looked good for Dave to grow into a cool and responsible young man over the next four years, enough that he could launch into a stimulating life of his own, which every good dad wants for his kid, he also felt, silently, at level sixteen, in the innermost chamber of his heart, a terrible sadness that there would come a day when, look for him as he might, there would be no Dave in the cabin, in the school, on the mountain, and good and right and healthy as that would be, it would also be a hole that could never be filled by anything or anyone else. He loved Maria with a deep and powerful love, but he had two children, and one is not two." (Martin Marten*, Brian Doyle)

 (photo by  Luca Zordan

(photo by Luca Zordan


*Book recommendation: Okay, friends, I just finished Martin Marten and cannot stop thinking about it. It's a delightful read. Here's what you do: wait until you have the time and headspace to really savor this book and sink under the spell of the writing. Give it a few chapters to settle in and to abandon your skepticism. It's a coming-of-age story about a teenage boy growing up in Oregon and a young marten (yes, an animal, that kind of marten) growing up in the forest nearby. Don't let that put you off, though. I've never been an animal book person--I could never be convinced to read any horse stories whatsoever, not even Black Beauty--but loved this. Though I have to admit I might have read faster/skimmed through one or two descriptive nature passages but not because they weren't fantastic--because I wanted to find out what happened next.  Masterful storytelling and an unforgettable, unique narrative voice about family and community and layers of stories and place. It's kind of hippyish, too, as Oregonians sometimes are :) but just such a good read overall--and he clearly loved commas at least as much as I do! (15+? Some language, complex themes and relationships)