I stalk my kids on Facebook

After I dropped my twins off at college, I discovered a whole new way to keep them close

Published September 23, 2012 6:00PM (EDT)

I've always admired the parents who cry all the way home from dropping their kids off at college. At least they're in touch with their feelings. I'm not, so my grief takes a less endearing form.

I stalk my kids.

Surely there are worse parents than I. (Surely there are better ones, too.) But last night, I spent so long on Facebook that my legs went numb, and I almost collapsed when I stood up from my computer. It was probably worth it, however, to find out that the twins had made 68 new friends at college, each of whom I checked out for the 10 seconds it took to realize I was crossing some line between "healthy interest" and "psycho-parenting."

I didn’t start out this way. My daughter Annalisa was the first to go, in 2004. Back then, we didn’t have such powerful tools as Facebook and Twitter, but I was invited to join Wesleyan University's parents' email group. In retrospect, this sounds suspiciously like an activity of the dreaded "helicopter parent" set, but at the time, we new college parents all thought it was wonderful. We commiserated together online, realized we were not alone and asked each other questions. ("Why did your kid get that class with Professor Brilliant while mine didn't?")

It was so hard to adjust to her being gone. Something about the energy -- maybe even the molecular structure -- in a house changes when one family member leaves. There's a hole there, and the other family members almost have to grow larger to fill in the empty space. The dinner table gets set for One Less; so I would become obsessed with creating a centerpiece of fall leaves and chestnuts. To pretend that life is just as full, parents take on all sorts of added activities. Mine turned out to be living vicariously through my daughter’s emails in a possibly obsessive way.

A few weeks after school started, I made a grave mistake by agreeing to an interview with the Wesleyan newspaper. I've done some stupid things in my life, but this was right up there with the high school streaking incident. Of course, I said something idiotic about how much I missed my daughter and how every email from her about college life was "like getting a present." Next thing you know, complete strangers were stopping her on campus to ask if she’d emailed her mom today.

But she has a good sense of humor, and she forgave me. And after a few weeks, I learned to relax.

Then, two years later, my son went off to Lake Forest College.

This time, emails were not forthcoming. Or, if they were, they were in male-style monosyllables. If I asked Will how his classes were, he'd answer, "Great." If I asked him if he had made some new friends, he'd answer, "Yes.” Even though freshmen don't get to play much, I found myself listening to his football games online through the college radio station. I took whatever I could get. Just knowing you are (sort of) experiencing the same thing your kid is, a thousand miles away, is something.

Eventually, I went back to my regularly scheduled programming. You can only worry for so long.

Now, it's six years later, and I just dropped the twins off at college. Double the fun, double the neurosis. They’re my last two, so I'm now an empty-nester. The world has introduced so many new ways to stalk your kids online, and I worry all this connectedness is fanning the flames of my anxiety.

For one thing, my kids were foolish enough to accept my friend request on Facebook, and they are most likely regretting that fact every time Mom makes little comments or "likes" something, rendering that thing instantly un-cool. There’s email and texting, of course, and Skype, and the college Web sites themselves. Yesterday my husband found me clicking through 100 online pictures of Denison University freshmen at their annual Activities Fair. I was trying to pick out our son Max from a slew of similarly dressed, dark-haired, tall young lads in blurry, pixelated onscreen photos.

Why doesn't my husband feel the same urge to do this? Please don't answer that.

But my embarrassment was short lived. This morning, I was back online, and here's what I found: a live webcam at College of Wooster, where our son Ned is a new frosh. Whooopeee, I thought. Except that it's 8:30 on the first Sunday morning after the first Saturday night on an American college campus, so I'm wondering what I thought I'd see. For the last 45 minutes there has been nothing happening. You see the buildings, and you see the trees, the grass, the lovely bronze sculpture, but there are no people at all. None. After several l-o-o-n-g minutes of absolutely no movement onscreen, I thought, "Well, maybe this webcam is frozen." Just then, a squirrel ran across the scene. After another 15 minutes, a breeze fluttered some leaves on the trees. It's like something out of the movie "Contagion." There is no sign of human life.

In a few hours, after they get up, my twins have agreed we can Skype. I will fire 80 gazillion questions at them -- about friends, classes, activities, if they like their roommates, if they like their professors, if the food is decent, if they're homesick, etc. They, being the good-natured sons that they are, will probably patiently answer them all, at least to the degree they're comfortable. And then, maybe, just maybe, I'll get a little calmer for a day or two before I start looking at their Facebook pages again.

Yet, despite my discomfort when my kids leave home, I wouldn't want anything else for them. I'm thrilled they are lucky enough to have the American liberal arts college experience. It's exciting for them, and all mothers know that what's exciting for our kids is exciting for us. I'll get used to it soon enough, and before I know it, they'll be out of college and looking for a job in a lousy economy. Right now, they're kind of in Magic Limbo Land, and I love being there, just a little, with them. As I view their lives onscreen, I am seeing them through a new lens, so to speak. I am watching them separate from me and from our home and create a new environment for themselves -- an environment in which I play no role. This, I know at least intellectually, is a very good thing.

I swear, I won't call them more than once a week.

After all, a once-a-week phone call was all I had with my parents when I went off to college. There was no orientation program for parents, either. They unloaded the car, took me out for lunch, and then they left. No Facebook. No texting or cell phones. No emails. I wrote them letters that took several days to get there and only contained what I chose to tell them. If they had wanted to stalk me, they would have had to do it in person.

These days, we have so many more opportunities to stay hooked into each others’ lives. I realize what I’m doing might sound creepy. But some of us just can't immediately face all the mixed emotions that come with bidding a child farewell (melancholy, sorrow, abandonment, worry, fear and, yes, a little relief, too). Some of us get all obsessive and anxious for a while. I know that I am adjusting to strange new territory here. And I also know that this stage will pass soon; I will, in time, accept that life is continually changing, that my kids are growing up and that I am getting older. And I will feel the feelings that go along with that knowledge. But not quite yet.

One last thing: I can stalk my kids all I want, but chances are I will never know what they were doing Saturday night on campus to make the Sunday morning webcam view of their campus look like a still-life painting. And that's just as it should be.

By Francesca Kelly

Francesca Kelly is a freelance writer and editor.

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