College Readiness: Sometimes it takes a little push.

I hear stories of kids chomping at the bit to get away from home, running to college as if their lives depend on it.  Kids who are simply bubbling with excitement and parents who are struggling to let go. So much is written about parents who are worried about letting go   but whose kids don’t look back.  That just hasn’t been my experience.  My child has rarely bubbled over with the thrill of leaving home, she’s never looked at independence as a sparkly, shiny prize. With only six weeks left before she leaves, she is now filled with anxiety, fear, and trepidation.

We expected this.  She is one of the bravest kids I know, and yet she has often needed to be pushed a little.  When she was 16, she was diagnosed with PDD-NOS, an autism spectrum disorder, and suddenly all her quirky traits, wrapped in anxiety, made sense. So it is no surprise that she is not really embracing this new adventure.  I’m sure she’s not the only one.

What’s a parent to do?  I’m afraid that like the mama of a fledgling bird, it’s time for me to push her gently out of the nest.

I am full of “mama” emotions. All those times I held her as she cried, wrapped her in my arms when she was afraid, whispered that I would always be there to protect her come rushing back to me as I steady and ready myself to push her out of the nest.  It’s time to fly, little bird . . . time for you to discover that your wings do work. My heart’s in a bit of a vice as I do this, but it is what is required now.

I recently read a post by Temple Grandin, author and expert on autism, who said that parents must be willing to gently push their spectrumy kids out of their comfort zone (my words, but it’s the idea that counts here).  As I read it, I nodded in recognition.  We’ve been doing that for our daughter her whole life, long before she was diagnosed at the age of 16.  Fear and anxiety would have kept her paralyzed; expecting her to get out into the world helped her grow.  Day camp at five years old was scary.  Sleep away camp at 9 was almost too much.  Engineering camp freshman year in HS was a gamble.  All required a little push and a prod.  All were amazing, growing experiences for our girl.

These are good things to remember now that college is looming. In little more than a month, my girl and her dad will be climbing into our truck for her move to a college far away.  “Far away” wouldn’t have been my first choice, but it’s the place that is best suited to meet her needs.  For a while, there was true excitement about going.  Now there is not much other than fear.  She would tell you it’s terrifying. There have been tears.

What do we do? Yes, one option is for her to abandon this great school and stay home to attend our local community college, which is a fine and wonderful place.  She says she needs a year – but my guess is that at the end of that year, she might need another . . . maybe even another.  Would she continue with her course work?  Would her life expand or would it contract?  Would she stagnate? Would she feel let down? All are questions we really cannot answer.  Anxiety is a constant for her; learning to deal with it is critical.

We have struggled with this college decision. In so many ways, our girl is ready. There are wonderful supports in place – both from student services which offer academic supports for ALL students to the disability services who will provide her individual academic and personal supports. We have family friends in town who adore her and have offered to be her home base.  And my husband and I have promised to visit once a month the first year so that she never has to go more than a month without connecting with us, face to face. And yet, little bits of niggling parental worry and doubt have hovered over us.

She has excitedly accepted all of the supports.  Until now. Now, in almost the 11th hour, she’s scared and feeling not ready. Yet, she has proven time and time again over the last year, just how ready she is. So we’ve made one more “deal.” It’s not unlike the deal we struck with each of our daughters the first time they went to sleep-away camp.  At the time, fearfully facing a week away, we told them each to give it three days. “If you absolutely HATE it and have absolutely NO FUN in three days, we’ll come get you.”  The deal was explicit:  only if they honestly had not one joyous moment could they pull the trigger. There were still tears, but it let them know that nothing is irrevocable, nothing is written in stone.  Neither one ever called to come home early; in fact, when they returned home and climbed off the bus, they each begged to go back right away.   Now, we are here, facing college, ready to strike a deal — one more time.

“Commit to a year.  Two semesters.  Do the things that college kids do (join a club, hang out in your dorm).  Give yourself time to get over being homesick (phones and Skype will help!).  Give yourself the gift of returning to school after Christmas break and finding that, on some level, you are happy to be back. Let’s see what your wings can do.”  At the end of the year, we can reevaluate. Nothing is irrevocable. Nothing in life is written in stone. Not ever.

She has reluctantly agreed.  Is she excited?  No.  At least, not that she will show my husband and me.  Will this leap of faith work?  Now there’s a question!  There are no guarantees, not ever. We’re pretty confident that this is the right step for her, and we have evidence that she can do it.  She needs to grow in ways that she cannot at home.  She needs to step beyond her anxiety and comfort so she can see the world from a new vantage point, high above where she’s been.

So, we will gently push our baby bird out of the nest. We’ve made sure there are branches for her to land on when her wings are a little shaky . . . places for her to regroup and to try again.

As for me?  I’ll miss her, more than I can put into words here.  I’ll hold my breath a little as we drop her off.  And I will be there, ready to catch her and help her try again.  I will always be there to help her get on her feet, to spread her wings again – because that’s what we do as parents.  Our job, from the minute they are born, is to get them ready to leave.  Our job is to help them fly.

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