When we first started the college search with our oldest, study abroad was one of her requirements, and was almost as important to her as her choice of major. We were supportive of this interest, believing that travel only adds value to life.
We were concerned about the additional costs it would incur, but left the possibility on the table. Ultimately, things didn’t work out and she never participated in a study abroad program.
In spring of her senior year of college, however, an opportunity to go abroad fell in her lap. When visiting her high school teachers, she discovered that a German family had been living in our school district for the previous year and was looking for an au pair to care for their two boys when they returned to Germany that fall. She had studied German in both high school and college, making her a great candidate for the job.
She came home with the proposal, and I tried to point out all the possible issues. She would have a place to live, but the stipend would be minimal and she soon would have loans to pay. She would be living with strangers, which may be manageable for a week or two, but she was talking about an entire year.
And she would be caring for two young boys. Yes, she helped with her siblings, but this was a much greater responsibility, and she would have to follow their house rules. She would be far away from home, (even at college she was only an hour away) and would miss events. Yes, she had learned about German culture, but it was not the same as living in it.
Undeterred, she set up a meeting with the family. They liked her, a lot. They quickly decided that she was the one and offered her the position.
She was on the fence and I continued my efforts to make her see that it was a bad idea. But then, inadvertently, I convinced her to go.
I had posted something on Facebook that she saw as a sign, something about taking chances, following your heart. I was done. Defeated.
At the end of the summer, we took her to the airport, the two large suitcases dragging behind her containing everything she would need over the next year. This was very unlike college, where she could swap out clothes seasonally or bring things home and pick up forgotten items. Also unlike college, it would be a year before we saw her again.
Watching her walk away, I saw a much younger version of her throwing a hesitant glance over her shoulder. I wondered, was she having second thoughts? Was she worried about what was to come? Was she going to be okay? The tears flowed, comparable to that very first drop off at her college dorm.
She was 22, a college graduate, an adult,but she was still my little girl. Now that she was grown she was also my friend. I didn’t think she was ready for this. I wasn’t ready.
We came home; our life with her three younger siblings went on. The school year was starting and with it, all the busyness it entails: the paperwork, new school supplies, back-to-school nights, after-school activities. I was used to her going and coming from college and tried to convince myself it was the same.
She discovered that through Gmail she could phone home. This helped, as I got to talk to her at least once a week. We also communicated through Skype, though I have to admit, this made me miss her even more. All was well through Thanksgiving. This was the first holiday since I became a parent that she was not with me. It was tough, but I got through it and then, as always, we moved into the Christmas season and I was busy enough to not dwell on her absence.
Since she was away, we had to send her gifts early. I also had to consider that anything we sent her would need to come home in those same two suitcases she left with. I mailed her gifts with ample time, but they got held up in German customs, and Christmas morning, she still had not received her package. To make things worse, she had also come down with a stomach bug.
We received gifts in the mail from her and “celebrated” the holiday via Skype. I tried to hold it together, but struggled not to sob. My baby was sick, thousands of miles away, and instead of home for the holiday, with her family, she was with strangers who could not possibly take care of her like I could. I missed her and wanted to make her feel better. Seeing her face on the screen made me want to hug her even more.
Although she didn’t say so, the separation (especially over the holiday) was affecting her as well. The following month, she called, homesick and unhappy. She wasn’t sure she wanted to stay. Things were not what she had expected.
It was then that I faced what is possibly my biggest parenting challenge yet. I wanted, with all of my being, to tell her to come home, to send her money to change her ticket, to get her back with me, where she belonged. What I did instead was to remind her that she had committed to this family; that they were counting on her to care for their children; that she had signed a contract to stay for a year; that she should honor her commitment and make the most of her time abroad.
The family knew she was unhappy, and they were willing to let her out of her contract. Instead, they all sat down and talked things through. There had been misunderstandings and miscommunication. A heart-to-heart cleared these away.
After this, their relationship changed. She became much more a part of their family. This was good for her, but I grew jealous. She started to talk about this other mom with affection and I felt as if I had been replaced. On the one hand, I was happy that she had another loving woman in her life, someone who could advise and watch out for her.
On the other, I felt as if this other woman was usurping my place in my daughter’s life. My daughter’s fondness for her grew, and this bothered me. This other woman was getting to spend time with my adult daughter, talking, cooking together, sharing holidays and vacation time, and I just got to talk to her occasionally .
I struggled with jealousy over her deepening friendship with the mom for whom she was working. And I worried about her when she traveled to different parts of Europe during her vacation time. But of course she returned from it all with an abundance of stories and photographs.
The year was a growing experience, for her and for me. We both learned what we are capable of. She gained lifetime friends and another family, with whom she remains in touch. I learned more about being a hands-off parent, one who can advise and let go.