I Left My Son in San Francisco
Learning to quash my alpha-mother tendencies and let my kid grow up.
"Let's set January as a goal," I offered. "You'll go back to Wisconsin or decide on some other approach." He returned to our basement: a cozy boy-cave close to the kitchen. He did yard work for friends, signed up for psychology classes at the local community college, and got a job busing tables for the bistro up the street.
By mid-December, Nate was making good tips and had a B-plus grade average. But he was not interested in returning to Wisconsin. He had no friends there, engineering was hard, the weather was freezing, and the prospect of a midyear housing search was daunting.
"I'd rather find a room on a beach," he confessed.
I suggested applying to another four-year university for the following autumn. He was welcome to remain in the boy-cave till fall. "I'm not doing that," he insisted. "I love you guys, but I've gotta get out of here." It was the most independent thing I ever heard come out of his mouth.
"In that case," I suggested, "go to community college somewhere you want to live."
Hmm, he wondered. "Do they have them in California?"
The very next day, he registered online for spring semester at City College of San Francisco. By the New Year, he was filling out the San Benito rental's questionnaire. Where the form asked for "occupation," I told him to write student and watched as he used a pencil "so I can erase." The landlady was set to approve him when another applicant offered $100 a month more. Such experiences teach you how to compete. As consolation, she e-mailed about a vacancy coming up soon in a "better neighborhood."
I left him with his bus schedule to start classes (psychology, sociology, and philosophy—no math). As he haphazardly carried on the rental hunt, our friends in the Richmond district wondered how long he'd be staying. At my urging, he contacted the landlady from the San Benito apartment. She was already considering someone for her place in the "better neighborhood" but agreed to show it to him. The Victorian house had a second-floor bedroom overlooking Golden Gate Park. Nate uncharacteristically called me the moment he saw it. "Mom, I want this."
The competition, a buddy of another resident in the house, had "a little bit priority," the landlady said, but Nate doggedly persuaded her of his own good qualities: He is well-mannered. He won't be having parties. His parents will pay by direct deposit. To his own amazement, my boy closed the deal. The following weekend, he moved out of our friends' garage to his own 300-square-foot home with hardwood floors and a working fireplace. Being 6 feet 3 inches, he especially loves the 14-foot ceilings. As a practical matter, the hearth perfectly accommodates his Xbox.
I'd been hammering Nate with my personal list of essential maturity skills before he left home. One must be able to make decisions, develop relationships, understand transactions, show up consistently, communicate clearly, I droned while making him double recipes of butterscotch pudding. On his own, he does not e-mail and rarely calls me. I tried to insist he check daily for my electronic correspondence, helpfully providing a list of cyber cafes in his neighborhood. "There are physical limitations which may prevent me from fulfilling your rules," he e-mailed politely. "I will make them personal goals to be accomplished." When I wanted to go help him "settle in," he asked me to wait "until I get things the way I want them." Don't come.
I pay for his groceries through a Visa account, every bit as functional as the freshman meal card. Lately, he's not that happy with my clerical performance. I didn't decipher my bank's electronic deposit feature in time for his first rent installment, so I sent the landlady's check to his address via the post office. "Look for it in the common mail pile," I alerted him, "so you can make sure she gets it." Nate, concerned the money would be lost and surprised his competent mother might cause him to renege on his obligation, got a little perturbed. He mocked me, "That's like you saying, 'I didn't complete the assignment!' "
From my view, Nate is a kid who still requires clerical and financial assistance, but he's been making himself a "habit list," hoping to change that. "If you do something every day for a 30 days," he says, it becomes "routine." Though not yet possessed of a five-year plan, Nate is at last intent on completing his tasks, one assignment at a time. My difficult job will be to let him.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.