So, we’re winding down to the last few weeks of my son’s Gap year abroad. It has been such a roller coaster ride of emotion and learning, I thought I would share the ride. It’s not one I wanted or planned on taking, but it’s an experience that I am so grateful he was able to have.
I have many friends about to embark on this journey again in August so, hopefully between tissue boxes and ice cream pints you can find a moment to read this …
Anyone who knows me realizes I’m a pretty anally organized person. I plan, I list, I shop, I embark and I do. But, when it came to my son leaving home for a full year, well I procrastinated. I did shop. Probably over-shopped. But then, I worried. Then, I freaked. Then, I worried again. Oh, and I freaked some more. I wasn’t a functional person during this time. I felt a loss and it was real.
And then, after much prodding I finally got to the task of packing. Placing that first item in the suitcase last August, meant it was real. I was taking my baby and placing him into a world that would be all his. Adult choices, adult decisions, adult moments – and ones I didn’t get to witness. This was the hardest part for me. Not being a fly on the wall to watch my baby grow. So, I sucked it up and put his perfectly folded pants, shorts, tees and pajamas all in a row in suitcase. With each item, I felt the anxiety rise. “What if this gets too small?What if he needs more underwear? Will he remember to wash things in hot or cold? Yes, it was embarrassing for sure (thankfully only my son was there to witness the sadness of my motherly moment of mush). Lots of eye rolls and fake reassurance during that time. “Yes, Mom, They have stores in Israel.” Okay, good point.
And then, we were done packing.
The Night After and Then Some
After I blubberingly dropped my son at the gate and picked up the small semblance of dignity I had left in front of other blubbering parents, I moved on. Slowly. R-e-a-l-ly slowly. There was a war going on in Israel and that was already an unsettling and scary feeling. I almost didn’t send him. But, knowing the guilt would have eaten my alive at depriving him of this opportunity, I again sucked it up. It was a really hard transition to only receive texts intermittently explaining where he was going and how he would get there. Again, my anxiety rose. What if he’s the one in the wrong place, at the wrong time. What if he tells me he’s going one place and ends up someplace else? What if, What if. What if. This pathetic pattern of anxious doubt crept deep into my soul. I could barely sleep and function without worrying he was dead in a ditch.
But, about 2 months (yes it took a full 8 weeks or so) I felt that cloud slowly lift. He was doing amazing. Adjusting to traveling around. Making new friends. Seeing new places. Learning so much. I had to get over myself and let him live.
The Communication Gap
Because of the time difference you may want to hear from your child at a certain time of day and realize that will not be possible (and if they are available you may start asking, why are you up at 3 am!). But, Whatsapp has become our family’s best friend. You can talk in real-time and makes keeping in touch with the entire group cohesive and normal. Siblings, parents, grandparents etc can all stay as connected as they want. My only suggestion is don’t become a Whatsapp whore. Give your child some space. If you’re getting one word answers they’re probably not in a chatty mood. (I learned this the hard way- Sorry, G!)
Don’t make his year abroad about you. This was the biggest lesson for me. I wanted to know every detail. I wanted descriptions, pictures. I wanted to be a part of his journey. But, alas. I am not. I am part of whatever he wants to include me in – and there have been many voluntary stories, pictures and details. But, loosen the apron strings and the communication comes all on its own.
The first time you visit your child is kind of strange. You’re on his turf, during his program and you want to tread carefully. It was strange to sort of go by his rules and timetable but, we wanted to be respectful of that. Others we know have still come and dictated (You will join us on our outings!) and that has failed miserably. It’s also super cool to have them show you around. He was proud of his program, his dorm, his friends. It was really amazing to see that and feel like a welcome guest in his world.
He had grown in the few months. I could see an independence building and a newfound way of talking about learning. He had come to respect new ideas, new lecturers. His spirituality had grown exponentially. But, deep down he was still that same person and that was a comfort to me. Even his arguments (and we still argue sometimes – cuz, well, we’re normal) were more founded and mature. You have to fight the urge to become a blubbering idiot every time he says something that makes you so deliriously proud you don’t know what to do with yourself.
The Drinking Thang
Okay. This was a hard one and a weird one, just the same. I had never been to Israel for the year. I had heard stories about Ben Yehudah Street (the hangout) but, never witnessed it with my own eyes. So, Thursday night of our visit to Israel I insisted on seeing the ‘scene’. He told me it would be a mistake. “Mom, you’ll literally be the oldest person there. You don’t want go!” I couldn’t understand what the big, freakin’ deal was. But, I should have listened to the boy.
I have never seen so many 18 and 19 year olds in one place. It was like a rave or a club that only older teens get into. I was the oldest person on the street. I also couldn’t pick my jaw up off the floor. So many teens, no matter the religious level, had beers or obviously had beers that evening. Drinking age is 18, I kept telling myself. This is legal. But, I felt like I was witnessing something I shouldn’t be. Like going into the spin the bottle game in your basement. It’s just not done.
Obviously, I now had images of my own child’s drunken stupor on a daily basis. I was enraged and shocked. Is this what I sent my child here to do? What the hell is wrong with this country!? But, once the shock and awe wore off we actually had a very open and real conversation about drinking. He got it. Without my ‘talk’ and without my supervision, my son realized the perils of too much alcohol and why that just isn’t his ‘scene’. There was method to this madness and my child was smart enough on his own not to become a lush. Proud Mama moment. Note to you Moms who are reading this and worrying now. Talk to your child about drinking all you can and want. But, realize it’s real, it’s legal and it’s super easily accessible. Tell them you trust them, tell them you won’t kill them and maybe they will share their experience with alcohol as something to ‘try’ instead of something to ‘hide’. Just a thought.
You come home to your first dinner after the trip and realize you’re still down 1 for the count. It’s sad and depressing that they’re still so far away. But, the good news- bounce back is super quick on this because you remember how happy and mature they’re becoming. Move on. With only a little ice cream…
It’s nearly 6 months since I’ve last seen my child. That’s both frighteningly long and maddening at times. I’m dying to hug that guy but, also realizing our New Normal. Visits will be visits, not living under the same roof for a while (forever? not ready to say that just yet!). He’s leaving just a short time later for college (a whole new territory). But, New Normal has taught me the value of space. He needed space to grow and get to know himself and his relationship with the world outside. And, as a parent of other wonderful children, that space allows the others in your family to shine in new light. Each of my girls has a new voice at the table, a new opportunity to feel what it’s like to be ‘the oldest’ as each chick leaves our nest for longer periods of time. And, I am certain that when we reunite with 6 at our table the joy we’ll all feel will be palpable and appreciated, instead of taken for granted.
So, now I can honestly say that the worry of the Gap Year is worth it. The tears are heartfelt and normal because the loss is real. We are losing Old Normal. Changing the way we’ve conducted parenting thus far. You aren’t a part of the every moment, but you can still be a part of the ultimate goal – independent people you’ve had the gift of raising. It isn’t easy and I find myself nostalgic at the oddest of times. But, I am excited to see how our relationship will continue to evolve.