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How do I stay in touch with my sons at university without seeming tragic and needy? | Emma Beddington




II’m getting used to living without my sons, who are both in college now. I don’t know if replacing them with major construction has helped, but it certainly provides a distraction (it would be uncharitable to say “and a comparable level of clutter”, so I won’t). I miss them, but if they’re okay, I’m okay. Either it’s denial, or I have the maternal instinct of the leopard iguana (which abandons its offspring after 48 hours with a pile of feces for company), or I’m really well adapted. I’m pretty sure it’s the first option: it always seems temporary. My husband is sadder, I think, because he has understood that this is the start of their one-way road away from us.

I worry about staying in touch, though. It’s hard to gauge what’s appropriate: Is it a huge inconvenience to get a message asking how their day went, or does the silence feel like I’m happily putting their rooms on Airbnb? I could ask for a weekly call, but I resist being so predictable, even though as a parent it’s literally my job.

So I stick to WhatsApp, composing then deleting messages, trying to look super laid back. I occasionally send in a tidbit that I hope might be of interest (a buffet recommendation, an impending meteor shower, or something intriguing that I’ve read – does that sound all that tragic in looks?). They rarely respond, which is fair enough, although I think the mad dog on opiates after dental surgery was kind of funny.

I’m mostly a bespoke Google and Ms. Beeton on a budget, offering streaming service passwords and the three digits on the back of my credit card; deal with whether you can substitute sweet potato for potato, how to save a burnt pan and send a package, and whether all this white and color washing stuff is real. “No, it’s not okay to use tweezers instead of tweezers to remove a tick” wasn’t a message I expected to send. “Whoever of you ordered ‘French Man Costume + Mustache and Onion Garland’ there is a delivery issue” felt more predictable. I asked the eldest not to join a cult but he told me if he did, “it’s your fault for not raising me well” (true). Requests for houseplant status updates are the only time I get evasive: there’s no good news to report here in the botanical murder dome.

Every now and then I get a crumb of unsolicited information as a treat. Exasperated photos of the eldest’s kitchen chaos, or shocking roommate meals (“It’s a can of frankfurters, two cans of tuna, a can of sweetcorn and he made the pasta by putting it in cold water in the microwave for 30 minutes” was the caption about who really needed a trigger warning). The younger one is more circumspect, so a blurry shot of Brian Cox is a thrill.

This whole phase reminds me vividly of my mother. She passed away almost 20 years ago, but while moving in 2018, I found a cache of letters she sent me when I was in college. It was a time capsule of motherly love: full of affection and, I see now, carefully disguised concern (I was unhappy). Without the convenience of digital messaging, she wrote constantly: quick notes on parchment-thin paper, actual four-page slips, and colorful postcards. I see her picking out snippets of news as I do, chronicling the efforts to confine the escaped hamster to his cage with freezer bag ties and the more gruesome lowlights of my sister’s drama group show. She often slipped money (“That’s about the price of a manicure,” one note read; another “Spend on something nice—an art book?—rather than to add it to the kitty”). She also sent photocopies of poems and flowers: on the card of a florist, one can read “You too, you flower”, in a rather heartbreaking way.

That’s what we do when our children inexorably drift away from us: find small ways to put our love in their lockers, pockets, and phones. When my father left to study in London, his mother, my grandmother, sent him a box of bluebells from their home in Forest of Dean, freshly picked, still fragrant and wrapped in damp cotton. What will my bluebells be? I always try to get out of it.