I Left My Son in San Francisco

Learning to quash my alpha-mother tendencies and let my kid grow up.

My baby recently left home. He’s 19 and launching his life in an age-appropriate way: subsidized by his parents, at school in a distant city, directing himself toward self-sufficiency and maturity. Nevertheless, the day his move became effective, I felt like I’d left him alone in the woods with no pebbles. This tender son was born 16 years after his big sister. She was learning quadratic equations as he was learning how to hold a spoon. When either child faltered, I’d try to help: “Here, let me.”

My daughter, now an adult, lives in New York, far from our kitchen table in Washington, D.C., a circumstance to which we both eventually adjusted. But when Nate moved to San Francisco in January, taking all the worldly possessions he could fit in a suitcase (including his apparently indispensable Xbox), I was a wreck. This despite the fact I went with him to help him acclimate. With his laptop’s browser bookmarked to Bay Area Craigslist, he acquired a MUNI bus schedule, a BART diagram, and a large folding map of the seven-mile peninsula. We studied neighborhoods while bunking temporarily in the garage of family friends in the Richmond district.

On my last day there, I watched him fill out his first rental application for a small low-ceilinged room on San Benito, walking distance from college. The Chinese man who was “helping the landlady” had given us a form so foreign to Nate it could have been written in characters. I resisted saying, “Here, let me.”

I have been working on curbing my rather overbearing alpha-mother tendencies. During Nate’s final year of high school, I impersonated him online, filling out and submitting 11 versions of the Common Application for undergraduate admission. The guidance counselor at his private school told parents such “clerical” support was expected. It became my full-time job. Nate was apathetic about college applications, even with (or maybe because of) such competent staffing. High school barely engaged him. His assignments were often late or incomplete.

“Forget California,” the college adviser told him, dismissing Nate’s only tentative regional preference. “The U.C. system considers only your grades.” The good news: His SAT scores were good, “especially that 760 in math.” He should “concentrate” on engineering programs, she counseled. Although Nate loved Legos and had a knack for calculus, I was not convinced those talents should determine a career choice. He was also intrigued by human behavior and was a whiz at those logic puzzles you find on the LSAT. Nate’s best friend, more certain of his passions, was planning to be an architect, however, so the adviser’s suggestion of a mechanical major took hold. OK, I’ll be an engineer, Nate seemed to say, gladthat’s settled, before losing interest altogether.

Nate’s contribution to the college admissions process consisted of showing up for standardized tests and writing a personal composition at gunpoint: a list of sentences beginning with the word I. “I get lost in my own imagination; I love to engage in a heated, smart argument; I can’t stand spiders; I can take a hit.” As his clerical assistant, I helped reorder the declaratory statements and broke them into five-line groupings to resemble blank verse. The result was acceptance at the engineering departments of several universities, including the University of Wisconsin, which he chose.

His Madison dormitory room had loft beds, built-in desks, and a TV donated by his rural Wisconsin roommate, basic cable included. I came along for freshman move-in weekend. We drove between Home Depot and Target, systematically collecting housewares and snack food for the small dorm fridge. Only when I left that Monday did he whisper, “Don’t go.”

I did, though, and I didn’t go back, either; too cold.

Nate’s adjustment to post-secondary education was mixed. He liked his meal card. He did not enjoy advanced calculus across a cold, windy campus. He hunkered in, slept as much as he wanted, and found the cooking channel especially compelling. At Thanksgiving he reported midterms had gone fine. Returning to school after Christmas, he learned that his sedentary first semester had earned him academic probation and a 1.0 GPA. Despite vowing to shape up, Nate continued to miss multiple physics labs that spring. In May he was officially dropped. Restricted from registering for September, he could take “a semester to reflect” and return the following January.

He felt awful. Failure is painful. Also, he was sure we were going to disown him. His freshman experiment took a big chunk out of the college fund. But the fact is, he wasn’t ready. He had not particularly wanted to grow up, he now admits. For a time, he even hoped he was developmentally disabled, so he wouldn’t have to.

His dad and I were “disappointed” and “concerned,” of course, but completely on his side when the bottom fell out. Feeling guilty for not visiting him, I soothed, “We’ll figure out what went wrong and relaunch.”

He came home to an unscheduled intervention. While he’d been watching the food channel, his sister had had a spectacular season. We were hosting a garden party in her honor the same weekend he arrived with his duffel bag. “Get ready for every grown-up you’ve ever known,” I warned him, “to ask how you did at school.”

“Poorly,” I overheard my straight-talking son admit to a guest, “but that was my fault. I didn’t complete my assignments.” As disturbing as the circumstances were, I was glad to have him back. I hadn’t finished raising him yet.

“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.