Fall Applications Lead to Spring Anxiety (10/15/14)

Trading Back to School Night for collegiate sweatshirts

I usually look forward to fall and its seasonal transitions, like switching from swimwear to sweatshirts—but this fall is bittersweet.

My two sons share a combined enrollment of eight years at the same high school, and recently I attended my final back-to-school night. I welcomed the opportunity to meet teachers and learn about my younger son’s senior year; and I hoped, for just one night, to escape the college deadlines creeping closer.

Arriving on campus, my naïve optimism quickly clashed with well-meaning questions about my son, “Where’s he applying?”

Immediately I realized, ready or not, I’d better buckle up to ride the college admissions rollercoaster set to impact my family, again.

As much as I complain about the application process there’s one part of it I cherish – the college tours with my son. I covet our trips together visiting vibrant campuses, exploring scholastic bookstores and imagining his academic future.

After returning home from our last college trip, my son narrowed his college application list into the three suggested categories: safety, probable and reach.

Poignantly, my son’s number one choice is a reach school the furthest distance from our home. This school is also the most elite and extensively diverse university on his list.

Since my son’s middle name may as well be homogenous, I’ve gathered academic information about his legacy ancestor hoping he’ll find a way to weave a thread of his heritage into his application—personally, it’s a double-edged collegiate sword.

Students applying to colleges today face an increasingly competitive environment and it’s predicted to continue as each year it appears the number of college applicants go up and the rate of acceptances go down.

The University of California system recently released its freshman application data for fall 2014. The nine campuses reported receiving approximately 383,000 applications for approximately 33,000 spots.

It’s heartbreaking seeing my son stress about test scores, grade point averages, extracurricular activities and application essays, all intended to impress college admissions boards.

Many colleges expect prospective students to craft a compelling essay of approximately 500 words articulating to an admissions committee how they will stand out, while at the same time fit in, at their university.

Students labor for months to perfect their essay and admissions committee readers spend an average of less than five minutes evaluating each essay that can make the difference between an exhilarating acceptance and agonizing rejection letter.

Even though I hope (sort of) that my son gets accepted into his dream college I warn him that the school he attends doesn’t necessarily determine a bright and successful future.

I’m reminded about the story of a mom whose son received a rejection letter from an elite university, she coped by repeating her mantra, “The Unabomber went to Harvard.”

My older son spent his Thanksgiving vacation completing college applications and I anticipated my younger son delaying the process until then as well. But last week he started the application process to avoid the frenzy of filings over the holiday and risk of websites crashing causing him to miss crucial deadlines.

Armed with his college application checklist and my credit card, I suggested he tackle the state college applications first. I assured him his older brother found their application easiest to complete since letters of recommendation, essays, resumes, and transcripts aren’t sent electronically.

Apparently, like childbirth, I blocked out the painful process from three years ago, and the procedure proved far more labor intensive than I recalled.

Soon my son will complete all of his college applications. Then he’ll spend anxious months anticipating and hoping for university admissions letters inviting him to wear their collegiate sweatshirts in the fall.

After he’s reviewed every acceptance and rejection letter, my son will make his final decision and commit to one college.

And, just as I shed tears of joy 18 years ago when my son arrived and I wondered how our family would adapt to life with one more in our house, this time I’ll weep wondering how our family will adjust with one less at home.

Thankful for the Bonds of Motherhood (11/19/14)

Giving thanks along the road to the empty nest

Last week my sister-in-law invited me to lunch to catch-up and celebrate Thanksgiving. We live in the same school district, barely, but she with two younger girls and I with two older boys rarely see each other more than a couple times a year. My husband’s family isn’t cut from the tightest of knit but rather the loosest weave of fabric. Although not related by blood, my sister-in-law and I share a stronger bond: motherhood.

We met at the restaurant and before being seated she said she had big news. Her older daughter, a high school freshman, has her first boyfriend.

She nervously described driving them on dates to the movies and followed every detail by adding, “But it’s cute.” Then she whipped out her phone to share the first homecoming photos of her daughter’s group gathering for park pictures and a traditional dinner.

The young couple recently celebrated their one month anniversary; to mark the occasion my sister-in-law sent a text to the boyfriend’s mom asking to meet for coffee since they’ve not met. The boy’s mom routinely circles my sister-in-law’s street; he jumps out of the car and into their house.

My sister-in-law said his mom never replied to her inviting text. She couldn’t understand why she didn’t share her enthusiasm to meet and discuss the teenagers dominating their lives.

Interrupting I replied, “He must be the youngest.” She reacted as if our napkins turned to tarot cards. She asked how I knew and added he’s not only the youngest but has married siblings. I laughed and said, “His mom’s over it—forget coffee.” My sister-in-law sat in stunned silence.

I flashed back to my older son’s first real girlfriend as a freshman. I admit I reacted similarly to my sister-in-law and peppered his girlfriend’s innocent mom with curious questions.

My son’s girlfriend happened to be the younger of two siblings, but thankfully her mom patiently and kindly calmed my anxieties without ever suggesting I seek therapy.

Today my older son’s a junior in college and younger son’s a senior in high school, and this teenage milestone feels like a lifetime ago.

I envy my sister-in-law sitting in her full, feathered nest unaware how empty it feels to have one flown and grown.

She walks down a hallway to see her daughter.

I drive down a freeway to visit my son.

She picks-up her daughter from high school and talks about the details of her day.

I send my son text messages between college classes hoping for an emoticon reply that day.

She tucks away and turns off her cell phone at night so she can sleep.

I place my phone on the nightstand and pray it stays silent while I sleep.

She waits evenings for her daughter to walk through their door at curfew.

I wait mornings for my son to call indicating he made it home at some time.

She planned a week-long family vacation during her Thanksgiving break.

I pleaded for 48 hours of family time during his two-day Thanksgiving break.

Reminiscing with my sister-in-law over our Thanksgiving lunch, I remembered my freshman fears and empathize with her. We share a strong bond, but we’re still separated by the defining high school graduation divide. As mom of a freshman in high school, my sister-in-law’s holding on and finding her footing. Me, as a mom of a senior in high school, I’m letting go and losing my footing.

My sister-in-law’s just merging onto the empty nest highway looking out the windshield marking heartwarming high school firsts. Whereas I’m nearing the end of the road looking in the rear-view mirror counting down heartbreaking high school lasts.

As we left lunch we hugged, and I reminded my sister-in-law to give thanks for every minute of motherhood. The rear-view mirror doesn’t lie: the empty nest is closer than it appears.

Treasured Traditions of the Season (12/17/14)

Holiday season’s magic shines for all ages

A series of unexpected events led my family to celebrate Thanksgiving untraditionally. Last month, I didn’t cook a turkey or run the annual Dana Point Turkey Trot. Instead, I watched strangers gnaw on turkey legs and logged 13 miles at the busiest … I mean happiest … place on Earth.

Our unconventional holiday, combined with my mildly melancholy mood, has me planning a festive Christmas celebration filled with time-honored traditions from my boys’ childhood, despite their entering adulthood.

Two weekends ago, and in need of seasonal decorations, I wandered through a store’s sparse aisles of holiday lights and décor. Nearby I noticed a dad and son searching for old-fashioned wire hooks used to hang ornaments on trees. When they couldn’t find any the dad asked a passing clerk for assistance who replied, “Sorry dude, this is all we have left.” The dad questioned why inventory was so low the first weekend of December. The clerk shrugged and said, “This stuff’s been up for two months.” Then the crusty curmudgeon suggested the dad use paperclips to hang his tree ornaments.

It’s no secret the holidays are big business and bids for hard-earned bucks begin earlier each year. December ‘tis the season of added expense and additional work; and, this year I have several friends opting to forgo the work and enjoy the expense. One girlfriend convinced her family to skip traditional gift giving and instead booked a cruise. She reasoned the wonder of the season can be found anywhere, especially in a tropical climate, so she and her family will set sail for the holidays.

Coincidentally, after hearing her plans, my college kid called to say his friend won’t be hosting his annual ugly sweater party this year since his family is swapping their sweaters for swimsuits. I suggested something similar saying next December we should trade stuffed stockings and pretty packages for plane tickets and secluded togetherness. My son replied saying something sounding like, “Scrooge that!”

My melancholy mood is attributed to my younger son completing the process of sending out his college applications. Having been through this experience once before, I know how it ends. Next holiday season my younger son won’t help to trim our tree, he’ll spend his December days in a dorm room with collegiate stickers as decorations.

This year in particular, I pine for the days of my tiny tots climbing onto Santa’s lap pleading for Pokémon cards. I miss Christmas mornings spent together constructing Hot Wheel tracks and building LEGO landscapes. This year I’ll watch as my boys rip open electronic gifts they plug-in to disconnect.

I’m trying to stop morbidly marking every ‘last’ of my younger son’s senior year, but this time of year  that’s about as likely to happen as a fat man sliding down my chimney. The thought of next holiday season and the reality of decking the halls of an empty house—not technically if you count my husband and dog—motivates me to pull out all the stops and make this a jolly holiday worth remembering.

Sure, it’s a lot of work to recreate the same holiday hoopla season after season, but it’s one of the few traditions in my boys changing lives that they can count on every year. Just as, each year, I rely on counting down the days until my older son’s homecoming. The December day my son finishes finals he arrives for his short stay and reunites with friends attending far-flung colleges. With both my boys home, for a few fleeting weeks, our house is again filled with spirited celebrations, merry laughter and joyful smiles—making this truly the most wonderful time of the year.

With Christmas one week away the stockings are hung, gifts are wrapped and the tree is trimmed. Only one last childhood tradition remains: seeing my sons’ eyes shine bright Christmas morning. That never gets old even if they do.