Even though my twins have been in college for a few years, I still don’t have a truly empty nest. Of course our apartment is deafeningly quiet—except when our dog is hungry—and there are no empty soda cans, piles of laundry or boots to trip over except on their vacations. Yet in certain profound ways both my son and daughter are very much present. I still worry about them more than I should. I definitely belong to that clichéd group known as helicopter parents, although it’s not that simple. I also belong to a small group of what I call the Autism Pioneer Parents. We’re the ones who raised seemingly impossible, developmentally and/or socially delayed children before autism was declared an epidemic. We struggled to find answers and help before the internet, the support groups, and the celebrity attention and research. In other words, alone and mostly in the dark.
So how could I not worry exponentially more than the average parent of a college student? It’s a miracle my daughter is in college at all. In special ed, all her life, some people thought she would be in a residential facility; almost no one thought she could overcome her academic and social challenges to succeed in college. Sheer determination on her part and ours, along with a lot of outside professional support has carried her into her junior year. And it’s been a slow and rocky road. Her freshman year she went through three roommates, gained 20 pounds, didn’t do laundry for a month, sometimes smelled like a homeless person, and was assaulted in the first semester. Yet somehow—with tremendous effort on her part and lots of tutoring—she managed to earn her associate’ s degree with a B+ average and transfer to Pace University with a $17,000 merit scholarship. While this was a sweet victory, every semester has been fraught with challenges. Choosing a major, navigating through core requirements, trying to find courses that were less abstract, getting along with a room-mate and dealing with ordinary life skills most kids master long before high school, all demanded my attention if not my physical presence.
And then there’s my son with ADHD who was born with a hole in his heart that required surgery at age three and monitoring ever since. His only limitations are that he cannot scuba dive, become an astronaut or play professional sports. Given my daughter’s challenges, I’m profoundly grateful that those are the only doors closed to him. Gifted academically and socially, he does well at his elite college except for the sadness and guilt he suffers because his twin sister was not so fortunate. Everything that comes easily to him is difficult, if not impossible for her. Though they love each other, they rarely have a conversation. She is envious and resentful, even when he reaches out to her. It makes me cry every time I think about it. So I try not to, which is much easier now that they are both out of the house most of the time, each one navigating in separate worlds.
Of course my son will graduate this May with a bachelor’s degree in English and Film. Translation: He will probably live at home for a while, given the grim job prospects for liberal arts graduates these days. The fact that he wants to be a stand-up comedian doesn’t make it easier. My daughter—if she makes it through this semester—will need a 5th year to graduate. Since we only budgeted for four years, she too will be moving back home again. Welcome to the world of boomerang kids.
I’m proud of my twins and their individual accomplishments so far. And it’s been a relief to have time off from the activities and stresses of day to day mothering. But sometimes it feels like they never left.