I came to Princeton well aware of the many advantages that would come with going to college only 10 minutes away from home: regular home-cooked meals, an actual excuse for last-minute packing and, of course, the ability to see my family whenever I wanted. People tell me all the time how lucky I am, and for a while I believed them wholeheartedly. Each time my parents drove to campus to drop off winter clothing or I snuck home for authentic Chinese food, I’d smile complacently. I had it good, and, boy, did I know it.
It wasn’t until I walked through my front door to spend fall break at home that I realized not all was well in my paradise of proximity. Though I’d dropped by a couple of times since the beginning of the term, this was to be my first extended stay since I’d gone away for school.
“I’m hoooooome!” I trilled, running into the awaiting arms of ... no one. My dad was outside talking to our neighbor, my mother was nowhere to be seen, and when at last I found my brother, he was playing World of Warcraft in my bedroom, which now looked suspiciously like a home office/yoga studio.
When my mother got home and started dinner, I embraced her, announced that I’d missed her and asked if she’d missed me too, grinning expectantly as I awaited her answer.
“Go wash your hands,” she responded curtly. OK. I hadn’t anticipated such a cold reception. She must have been exhausted from the excitement of my big homecoming.
At dinner, I babbled about my classes, my friends and the thrills of college life. My parents only nodded halfheartedly between bites. I persevered, perhaps exaggerating the trauma of midterms for dramatic effect, until, fed up, my brother finally exclaimed, “Can we talk about something else?” I was indignant. Didn’t they care about what I’d been doing? He responded that the joke about free food my suitemates and I had come up with wasn’t that funny. And that I’d told the story about the “haunted dorm room” prank three times already.
Had I really? I thought back to the phone calls I’d had with my family, which had steadily progressed from incessant check-ups from my parents to rare conversations that I had to initiate, all of which went something like, “Hi Mom!” followed by, “What do you want?” I had a brief flicker of recognition, followed by a peculiar sinking feeling — was it possible? Because campus is so close to home, did my parents not miss me when I was at school?
When the power went out, my mother confirmed my suspicions by suggesting I go back to school to do work. Sullenly, I returned to my dorm and stewed. Everything I did, I did resentfully. I wrote my English paper about the fragility of familial ties. From chemical bonds to the principle of decreasing marginal utility, every concept seemed another painful reminder of my family’s indifference.
In the weeks following, I pretended not to care. I didn’t go home and called once a week. No Skyping, no Facetiming, no mushy “I miss you” texts. I was miserable, but I was determined to be strong. If they weren’t going to miss me, I certainly wasn’t going to let on how much I missed them.
Meanwhile, a classmate from Seattle informed me with evident smugness that her parents had gotten a dog in a desperate attempt to fill the gaping hole she’d left behind. Her parents insisted she spend every waking moment with them when she was home — it was a terrible burden. I watched enviously as my suitemates received care packages filled with candy, clothing and love notes.
But speaking to a few other local students, I discovered that my experience was not only standard but a mild case. One friend informed me he was all but completely ignored when he went home. Another told me she’d been advised to stay at school for Thanksgiving. I despaired. Was this to be the plight of all townies? Would absence never make our parents’ hearts grow fonder?
But after weeks of self-pity, it eventually became clear I had evaded homesickness at school only by reassuring myself my parents missed me more than I did them. Knowing I could technically, if not realistically, go home every day hid how much life as I knew it had changed when I came here. But in reality, even living 15 miles away could never replace seeing my parents every day. What I thought had been a smooth transition into my busy new college life had actually been an attempt on my part to avoid the uncomfortable sentiment that I was actually homesick. When my parents were still calling daily to check up on me, my resultant exasperation was almost comforting in its familiarity — it felt like high school all over again. Their decision to give me some space, call less often and trust my independence was startling and forced me to finally recognize the frightening changes I was now undergoing.
And just as I was getting sick of trying to ignore my parents, I got a call from home. It was my mother, asking me to go shopping with her.
“Uh, I would, except I have class ...” I trailed off, rolling my eyes at her oversight.
“Right, of course,” she said hurriedly. Had I imagined it, or was that a tinge of regret I detected? “When can you come home?”
“Wednesday afternoon, at the earliest,” I said nonchalantly.
“Try to hurry. We miss you.” It was a small victory, but internally, I celebrated. I didn’t care how many beagle puppies Washington Girl’s parents bought her or how many care packages my roommates received. My parents still missed me, and I was getting noodles for dinner.