Parenting a college student is a different stage and requires different parenting skills and perspectives. Sarah Butler and occasional guest bloggers will share some insights to help you on the journey. You're not alone!
CRITICAL CONVERSATIONS: Preparing for the Unexpected
by Sarah Arthur Butler, Parent Council Member
Chicago. Minneapolis. Copenhagen. Not one of my parents’ three daughters chose to put down roots in our hometown of West Lafayette, Indiana. As a parent of adult children, I recognize the reality that I, too, may find my children establishing lives far from my home. However, at this moment, my concern is focused on my parents rather than my children. As our children grow older, we are growing older, too. Our remaining elders are growing older still.
I just completed a call with my sweet Papa, who is in his last days on this earth. A month ago, I spent an unexpected week in Indiana navigating the world of hospitals and skilled nursing facilities at the beginning of the end. A family gathering mid-month made it possible to celebrate Dad’s 94th birthday alongside decisions for end-of-life care. We simultaneously employed the hands-on-deck to pack and move Mom to a new assisted living apartment in preparation for her next stage of life. My Copenhagen sister is now taking a turn at Dad’s bedside and settling mom in while I wrestle hospice arrangements and finances from a distance. My Chicago sister and I have spent our phone time this week talking ahead about managing the next steps when our world-traveler sister leaves for commitments on the other side of the globe. It’s challenging and yet my sisters and I feel blessed. We have each other’s support in the critical moments and conversations.
Yes, there have been life changing decisions to make, but we had Power of Attorney and Living Will documents already in place. Funeral arrangements are already paid for. We have steadily, over the last few years, been working with Mom to pare down unused possessions. We three sisters are planners and caretakers, so we’re working together well and loving on each other while we cover needs for our parents. I am also blessed with colleagues who are ready to cover for each other when the drop-everything-and-go moments arrive. Yes, it’s hard. In fact, it’s downright excruciating at times, but we have had the gift of time to prepare and make peace with what is happening.
Some of us are graced with a window for closure but none of us escapes loss. Some of the dearest people in my life have experienced the worst side of the journey into tragedy. I’ve seen that side, too. Cancer took loved ones before their time. A tragic accident left three cousins orphaned in an instant. A dire illness left a brother in Christ with three small children to care for alone. A sudden death took a precious mother before her daughter—away at college and trapped by a blizzard—had a chance to say goodbye. Now, those in my life that have experienced that kind of blinding grief are coaching me to have a plan. Ahead of me on the path, they are asking me the questions that are sometimes hard to think of myself. Would you allow me to do that for you?
I was challenged to think about the “what ifs” in order to make decisions that will help me—and my kids—when a family emergency strikes home. It’s like being encouraged to engage in family discussions that map out the middle-of-the-night fire escape routes to be sure you have the best possible outcome when unforeseen circumstances become dire. We’ve been able to make some key decisions that are keeping us mobile, flexible, and working together. Would you consider having “critical conversations” with your loved ones, including your young adults?
Parents might ask their students:
1. If we had a family emergency for mom, dad, siblings, or grandparents, when and how would be the best way for you to learn about it? Do you need my voice on the phone? Will it help to have a person ready with a hug? Note: your Student Life team at Northwestern is ready to step in to help parents locate students on campus, deliver news in person, or help students make a quick exit in case of emergency.
2. Under what circumstances would you want to get home to your family? How would you get there? Would you need a companion? If a flight is required, how will you get to the airport? Suggestion: Decide what constitutes an emergency for your family and what requires a trip home. If a car is available, determine if your student would be safe to drive. If a flight would be required, research typical airline options in advance and include key numbers in phone contacts. Be clear about what expenses are permitted by credit card.
Parents might ask themselves:
1. What are your needs as the parent? If there is a hospitalization or funeral, do you expect your student to make every effort to be there? If it meant a loss of class time, or even credit set-backs, is that acceptable? What do you need from your adult children in a time of stress for you? Are you expecting their emotional or physical support, expecting to support them, or expecting to be support for each other? Think about: Your reaction to crisis and your student’s persona under pressure are important considerations. Having transparent conversations now is a guard against unrealistic expectations for either of you.
2. What are your student’s needs? What will help them with closure if time is short or travel is impossible? Who can help them Skype or FaceTime with a loved one at a distance? Will they need to feel helpful? What role do they want to play in the family? Will they need outside support? Consider: Birth order, your student’s love language, and whether this is their first time dealing with family crisis will affect their ability to cope.
3. Who would be a part of your family support system? If your student is facing a loss while living away, do you know who to call? If you need hands-on-deck at home, who else can you count on? If you need help with communication or finding transportation for your college student, who can you enlist? Check out: A list of resources is provided below. Northwestern cares about your student, too. Add us to your support team!
You can never plan timing for the unexpected, but we can recognize that the unexpected will happen and determine a plan. I have an extinguisher in the kitchen just in case I have a fire. There’s a radio in my garage that does not require electricity if weather leads to a loss of power. I have a sump pump in the basement to be ready when water rises under my house. Now I also have a bag packed and ready to go in case the call comes to get to Dad’s bed side again sooner rather than later.
I admit this is NOT something I want to get good at. Nonetheless, Isaiah 43:2 assures us that we will all face crises. We are also reminded that when, not if, the fire and floods come, we will not be overwhelmed. The Lord promises us that He himself is WITH us in the midst of it all. One of the ways He provides for our “way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:19) is through the gift of relational support. While there is yet time, let’s make sure that our daughters and sons have an opportunity to think through the possibilities with us, so when we need help the most we are ready to lean on the Lord—and each other.
Recommended Campus Resources:
Student Life: Call for help notifying your student or navigating a quick exit from campus. First point of contact: Debbie Toivola at 651-628-3398 or dial Student Life’s front desk at 651-631-5205
Public Safety: For the 24-hour officer on duty, call 651-631-5310
Campus Counseling Center: For follow up support appointments call 651-631-5190
By Sarah Arthur Butler, Parent Council Member
Pictures take me back to important moments. One treasured image captures my daughter at about age three, sitting in “time out.” We were in the side yard by the blow up kiddie pool but she was in a folding chair instead of in the water. It was a sunny day but the air between us was far from warm. Her resolute frown and the pint-sized arms crossed over her chest tell that day’s story. It’s important to me to remember that early parenting wasn’t all smiles at birthday parties, family fun, and happy holidays. There were also disaster days, family flare ups, and Christmas crises. I need to be able to look back and recognize that parenting didn’t always go the way I planned.
I also need to remember that my actions were often a part of the problem. In fact, there were times that I needed a parenting time out, too. I admit it. Even now, with young adults in and out of the nest, there are moments when I am the one with the pouty lip and the scowling brows. Those are usually the times when I’m thinking to myself, “I can’t believe she did that!” or “It seems so obvious to me, why is he so oblivious?” and “When will they grow up?” My decades-older perspective sets me up to think that my grown children should get what I get, think how I think, and appreciate what I appreciate.
I read the book What to Expect When You’re Expecting in preparation for parenting, only to realize later that no book could instill the essential element of experience. Parenting toddlers doesn’t come with a foolproof handbook—neither does parenting teens—or twenty-somethings. Sometimes I still need a time out, not because I’m in trouble (although I am totally capable of getting myself in a pickle), but because my kids are in trouble and I need to remember… Only instead of recalling things about my children’s younger years, I need to envision a snapshot of my own younger self.
When I take time out to pray for wisdom before I press ahead, I find myself reflecting on myself at their age and asking some key questions. What helped me recover when I made a poor choice or experienced failure? What did my parents do right? Would those be good step to take now? Quite honestly, I did better when my folks didn’t overemphasize my mistakes. I was hard enough on myself. When they asked about me, rather than the mishap, I was more likely to trust their counsel. “How are you doing with that disappointment?” felt like compassion. On the contrary, “What are you going to do about that mess?” felt like shaming. They offered support when they asked, “How can I come alongside?” When they pointed out, “That was a bad choice, you know,” they served up judgment. Looking back, I lived with the consequences of my choices either way but when my parents helped me figure it out rather than rubbing it in, I made more headway.
If I’m taking off from my own driveway, I put the car in reverse first, before I put it in drive so I don’t destroy the garage by mistake! Similarly, I need to look behind me in order to make the right move forward. If I’m disappointed by my young adults but manage to walk away from my own attitude long enough to remember what it was like to have less experience, to lack a sense of my own mortality, and to have limited hindsight, I respond differently. I’m much more likely to wait to be asked for counsel than to offer unwanted advice.
A parenting time out also helps me remember what I already know about my own kids. I know my daughter’s love languages include words of encouragement. Like me, she makes more headway with affirmation than correction. My choice of words can be life giving or destructive. I know my son learns best from his own experience. As hard as it is to watch sometimes, I have to quit trying to protect him from the tough stuff and be ready to offer support when he’s working through the fallout.
The kiddie pool is long gone but hard lessons are long lasting. Sometimes we just need a time out. When I step back into reflection before I step forward into action, I make wiser, more prayerful choices. Starting out by looking behind gives me a better vantage point for parenting.
"Pondering-in" the New Year
By Sarah Arthur Butler, Parent Council Member
I am introspective by nature. I have learned to appreciate the ability to think deeply as a rich gift--and as a potential stumbling block. Blessings come when thoughtfulness leads me to a deeper understanding of others or when an "aha" moment brings personal growth. However, since reflection is second nature, roadblocks to thinking things through have the potential to launch me into overload mode.
Christmas brought the contrast into focus this year. This was only the second Christmas in 26 years that didn't require travel across four or more states in winter weather. The lack of white-knuckle driving left me more relaxed, with plenty of time for contemplating the early years with kids. I remembered the challenge, and the overwhelm, of splitting holiday time equitably between two families, juggling naps in a different time zone, and settling toddlers down in unfamiliar beds. I was left with little margin for thinking clearly, let alone being introspective. In comparison, this year I loved being able to worship at my own church, having adult children preparing desserts, and sleeping in just a bit on Christmas morning. Circumstances did not snatch away my ability to savor the moment. The day was still and spacious enough to have time to think--even ponder over the events that were unfolding.
In meditating on the familiar story in Luke chapter 2, one Mary-moment captured my attention in a new way this year. It struck me that the precious little family experienced the antithesis of a quiet Christmas. Mary and Joseph didn't have a choice but to travel under the worst of circumstances. Grossly pregnant, the conditions were anything but comfortable for Mary and when they finally arrived, the accommodations were far from luxurious. The bed was worse than unfamiliar--it was miserably non existent! Mary faced fear alongside excrutiating pain, with no medical attention, unsanitary conditions, and only Joseph to care for her needs in childbirth. I imagine the cries of a first-time mother in labor, followed by the wailing of her newborn catching his first breath, and joined by a great company of noisy angels, filling the night sky with such a cacophony that the shepherds were driven to join the commotion. In my mind's eye I see these raggamuffin strangers showing up in the middle of the night, contributing to these most unusual circumstances. And yet, Luke tells us in Chapter 2, verse 19, that in response to all this revelry, "Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. In the midst of it all, she sought a quiet space in her soul for reflection.
I realized that Mary was a deliberately and intensely thoughtful woman. She could have been easily overwhelmed by the circumstances, but because she knew that the Lord was not only the orchestrator of the event but also resting in her arms, she could be fully present to drink in the wonder of the moment, lock in those memories, and ponder that the God of creation chose her to parent this most precious of babes. She met the intensity of the events at hand with the intentionality of her introspection.
New Year's Eve found me celebrating the wedding of my dearest friend's daughter. I enjoyed the privilege of lending a hand in the preparations and noted the giant collection of noise makers that would be used to ring-in the New Year. Even with a boisterous band turning up the tunes and guests blowing horns, we couldn't have even come close to what the angels must have sounded like. And yet, more than once, I caught a glimpse of the mother and father of the bride capturing a quiet moment to dwell richly in the full meaning and splendor of this once-in-a-lifetime event.
I certainly can't hold a candle to Mary, and I didn't just pull off a family Christmas celebration and my daughter's wedding in the same week. In fact, I needed a quiet Christmas to be able to focus on--and to ponder--the Lord's gifts to me in this moment in time. Chief amongst them are my two adult children, whose thoughtfulness this Christmas was quite remarkable. It's tempting to think that the parenting milestones to celebrate are all behind us, but I speculate that each upcoming year has the potential to be transformational. My children's arrival into adulthood might bring the necessity of travel at Christmas or there might be new people at my table soon! Now it is their turn to settle into the years with the biggest decisions of their lives--choosing where to work, finding a place to live, discovering if there would be a marriage partner or children, and discerning how to serve others with their gifts and talents. I feel convicted to pray--again--about growing in my role as a mom of grown children.
I'm hoping that despite the commotion of the new year, I'll be able to truly focus on the Lord at work in and through my now-adult children. Rather than miss the years gone by, I'm taking a cue from Mary to treasure the moments, be fully present wherever I am, and pray for a peaceful heart so I can be fully aware of the Lord at work in my circumstances. I don't need more revelry to "ring-in" 2017. I am resolving, instead, to "ponder-in" the new year.
By Sarah Arthur Butler, Parent Council Member
We have witnessed a remarkable fall season in Minnesota with record-breaking warmth. It only took us 116 years to beat our record! For goodness sakes, William McKinley was president the last time we had a first frost this late in the season. My garden clean-up was finished before snowfall for the first time in years and my son volunteered to get the Christmas lights up when he could still accomplish the task in shirtsleeves! I couldn’t imagine a more glorious fall…until I read another perspective. Brad Hawthorne, an ice fishing guide on Lake of the Woods along the Canadian border was featured in a Pioneer Press article titled “Minnesota’s Outdoors Businesses Sweating.” Brad reported that last winter he was still running boats on open water mid-December and rescheduling ice-fishing reservations to post-Christmas dates. This promises to be another season of losses for Brad. From his point of view, the extended warmth is a cause for concern, not celebration. With a livelihood tied to cold-weather sports, no winter means no paycheck.
“It’s all a matter of perspective” is true for more than the seasonal weather. Our remarkable fall also collided with a challenging election season and an unusual season opening for the Vikings. Both voter and fan responses ranged from elation to agony. Regardless of your favorite weather, who you voted for, or whether you are a Vikings fan, we’ve all lived through each of those events—just not all in the same way. Depending on our personal circumstances, our approach to any season, including the seasons in our lives, can be entirely different.
Sometimes living through events can be mostly about survival. When living joins the preposition through, as in “to get past or beyond,” (thank you Dictionary.com) our goal is to press hard to the escape hatch. That approach might epitomize your Thanksgiving with extended family, your current job, or your battle with a serious illness. I admit that when facing the greatest challenges of my life, it has been my first instinct to put my head down and barrel through. How often I have prayed, “Lord, just give me what it takes to get through this one!” What’s sad for me is that this tough-it-out mentality has sometimes applied to seasons with my kids when I might have looked at life from a different perspective. To live through two-year-old tantrums was, at times, all about endurance and not enough about enjoying this fleeting time with my children. Getting to the other side of my son’s recovery from major jaw surgery was pretty humorless, when in hindsight there was a lot of laughable moments in his 12 weeks of liquid meals. Living through unemployment with a tuition bill for college often meant being scrappy and resourceful instead of taking advantage of the opportunity to pray with my young man about watching for God’s provision. There are times I could have chosen a better approach.
From a different vantage point, it can also be far too easy to live through our children as if their lives are the center of our own. This is where dad’s dreams of baseball get lived out in pressure for his son to play. This is where mom’s healing from mean-girl bullying puts too much focus on her daughter’s social status. This is where past regrets about not applying ourselves in school turns into hounding our students about their academic performance. This is where living joins the adverb through, defined as “having no interruption, obstruction, or hindrance,” which suggests a continuous (maybe too pervasive?) presence in our children’s lives. When we choose this approach, we risk setting ourselves up for disappointment when our students remove themselves from the center of our attention. After a season of independence on campus, they are likely to be looking forward to less relational dependency. I’m conscious as Christmas approaches, that if we are living through our kids in this sense, we may have unrealistic expectations for their engagement with us over the holidays.
Is there a more positive way to live through? I recently expressed to my son that I am not interested in living my life waiting for the tough part to be over—for either of us. Living through does not have to be about just getting to the other side of his challenges—or mine. Neither am I inclined to hold either of us back by holding on too tight. Living through does not need to mean that I derive my success or satisfaction from my children’s life choices. Life is happening NOW, and regardless of the circumstances, today is the day I am living in—and living it in my own skin. What if I choose a perspective that allows living to happen in the same space with through, as in “thoroughly; through the whole extent of; in all respects; from beginning to end”?
What I aspire to is living, in relationship with my kids, through whatever circumstances life is presenting to us today. I am choosing to offer (rather than impose) my presence in supporting my children’s passions and healing from their pain. I hope to invite realistic expectations to live alongside my investment in the present moment. When the election threatens to divide our country, I want to be fully present, praying for God’s hand at work in all circumstances, not waiting for it to be over. I want season tickets to the game whether my team is winning or losing. When Christmas comes, I will be fully present for whatever time we are together so I don’t miss the joy in living through this season with my family.