Five years ago my daughter graduated from the all-girls’ high school where she learned more than how to ace exams. She competed for honors with girls who were laser-focused on college. She skated her heart out to make the varsity team before accepting it was beyond her reach. She learned about negotiation and conflict resolution over lunch as girls verbally arm-wrestled over prom dates. Under horrific circumstances she learned that life comes with an expiration date.
Graduation wrought tears, pride, and the realization my work was mostly finished. We’d given her roots and wings. How resilient she would be; whether she would bend or break from the inevitable tempests that awaited her; how she navigated an independent life, were beyond my control.
Five years later I began my week by watching an interview with the family of the Penn State fraternity pledge who recently died a senseless and preventable death as a result of hazing. I was reminded of how little control we have once our kids leave home. It seemed timely to share an essay, originally published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, later incorporated into my award-winning memoir, “Bitter or Better.”
The context: In the spring of 2012, two months before graduation, we shared a sun-kissed vacation with my daughter’s girlfriends and their mothers. One morning I asked the other moms what they wanted their girls to know as they launched the bikini-clad girls who were in view but out of earshot. The responses drew upon our respective experiences and vantage points but led us to craft a roadmap for resilience that has universal application.
The world has changed dramatically since you were born 18 years ago. Three women have served as secretary of state and several have run for president. Terrorists attacked us on our own soil so we pack our toiletries in ridiculously small Baggies when we travel. We communicate on minuscule keyboards and multi-task like mad. We have that thing called the Internet that connects you instantaneously to the cute guys you met in Mexico.
Soon you will leave the protective shelter of home and school. You might be stunned to learn how much it costs to support yourself and that life as portrayed by the Kardashians is fantasy, not reality.
As mothers, we cannot protect you from what we know to be reality: that life will bring joy and pain, opportunities and obstacles. We have done our best to prepare you to navigate it all. But in case you’ve missed the lessons, we offer you this missive to carry in your minds and souls. If you should misplace it, we are always just a phone call — or a text — away.
The first year of college may be hard. You will need to figure out how to be a juggler — when to strive for moderation and when to push the limits. You will need to manage your time and your finances. It could take awhile to master the art of balancing laundry, exams, a social life and maybe even a job. Be patient. Be resourceful. Be confident. Relish the empowerment that competence and independence breed.
You’ll need to be your own advocate in ways you may not imagine right now. You might miss a deadline on a paper and need to negotiate with your professor. Your roommate might have nonstop visitors; your tiny abode might become a toxic wasteland. Don’t suffer in silence, but be respectful. Respect is a two-way street.
Regardless of how it may appear, drinking is not an NCAA sport. No matter what others are doing, saying, or thinking, you will never regret making good choices, though it may not feel that way at the time. Be your own person, awkward as that may be.
If you decide to drink, learn your tolerance. Use the buddy system. Relinquish your car keys. Many people have addictive tendencies and you don’t want to discover yours the messy way. Do you want to be one of those girls who slams shots to get inebriated and ends the evening with mascara cascading down her face?
College can be a blast but it can also be stressful. Whatever you are struggling with, you will get through it — and you need not face it alone. Take a risk and open up to others. When a friend or roommate is feeling blue, reach out. You might save a life.
There is a correlation between effort and outcome. Ninety-nine percent of anything is what you put into it. Push yourself. Work toward something you never thought you could do. Run a marathon. Choose a finish line and experience the exhilaration of crossing it. Dig deep and finish strong.
Choosing your major may be overwhelming. Take time to discover your passion and nurture it, even if there are naysayers who don’t believe in you. Embrace your gifts. If you do what you are passionate about you will find contentment. Everything else — money included — will work out. Keep an open mind. Many things you think could never happen do.
You are in the prime of your life. There are endless products and services to enhance your appearance, but it will change as you age. (You may have noticed that time and gravity aren’t always kind to moms in swimsuits). Don’t neglect your inner beauty, for it is what will draw people in and truly define you. Be the go-to friend who is a good listener and protects others’ confidences. Learn to accept and give compliments with grace and sincerity.
While you mostly communicate with digital devices, adults actually talk to one another. Explore the world. Read books. Study abroad. Sharing something you love makes you intriguing, exceptional, and desirable. Master the art of conversation by having something interesting to say.
And please… call home.
With love, Mom