My daughter is on her semester abroad, so why do we talk every day?

By Randi Olin

It’s 6:52pm in Cape Town, seven hours ahead of Connecticut time; it’s partly cloudy, 70 degrees, and falling. I’ve added the city to my weather app, and to my iPhone’s world clock. Because my daughter Emily is studying abroad in South Africa for the next four months, and I want easy access to the time and climate there.

She was home all of January because of the program’s February start date, so we had several weeks to pal around together before she left, time we don’t normally get because she usually goes back to college right after the new year. Which made it that much harder to say goodbye. When she turned around for a final wave at JFK’s International Terminal, I blew her a kiss. I was excited for her of course, I remember what it felt like when I went abroad junior year, but I was also sad, because I wasn’t sure how much we’d be able to keep in touch while she was gone. Our mother-daughter connection is very important to me. Even while she’s away at college, we manage to maintain a healthy balance of distance and enmeshment.

I wonder what it was like for my parents when I went abroad, when I left for Florence a week after the Lockerbie tragedy. When among safety and other concerns, our ability to communicate hinged upon international calling centers and temperamental phone cards. We settled on Sunday nights at 7:00pm, Italy time, for our scheduled calls. Every week I’d race downstairs to the single phone we had in our program’s villa, the one right outside the dining area, hoping it was free. I can’t even fathom having that kind of limited communication with my daughter right now.

Did you hear from Em yet?, my brother asked two days after she’d left. By that point I was surprised by the question, but how could he have known that despite the distance, my daughter and I would have “spoken” so much from afar. I’d worried at first if she would be too busy, or would have issues with Wifi; how would we adjust to the seven hours between us, could we easily settle into a new routine? All of that quickly vanished when I got her first “landed!!!” text, when the uncertainty was replaced with contact. And lots of it.

She texts and sends photos; she FaceTimes with me too. Day One she gave me a tour of her new apartment, I met her roommate, then she gave me a taste of the neighborhood from her bedroom window, the flat-topped Table Mountain in the backdrop.

It’s as if I am right there. I am on the other side of the world with her.

Then there are the photos on social media—Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook—whether on her friends’ feeds or her own. She has a blog on VSCO to journal her abroad experience, a modern-day, much more extensive (and public) equivalent to the handwritten diary I kept in Florence years ago. Things were more private back then, recorded for the sake of our own memories. We even had to wait for our rolls of film to be developed, after we’d already come home, without the kind of instant gratification felt in today’s world. There was no touch, no communication, no day to day connection with our parents. It seemed like that was part of the point.

“We have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” one of the other moms wrote in our group chat. We’d been connecting about the girls’ student visa papers and packing lists, flight details and international phone plan options and all the little details leading up to the trip. This hyper-involvement was hardly a stretch given my safety-netting instincts as a parent, but what she was talking about was something altogether different. We were knowingly sending our children into a potentially dangerous situation. Cape Town was about to run out of water, Day Zero, they’ve been calling it in the papers, the ominous day when the city’s taps will run dry. When among the more obvious problems that come with having limited water to drink or use, the fear of social unrest looms like a dark, stormy cloud over what might otherwise be an idyllic semester abroad.

But that’s all in the future. For now, the moms exchange photos and texts and talk about our mutual experience of having so much access to our kids. It feels weird, it seems wrong, we admit to one another, even though we all like it. Because of the time difference we wake up each morning to a flood of messages and pictures about the day’s adventures.

In this age of technology, Cape Town doesn’t feel so far away after all.

Which is probably why, when people ask me how I’m doing with my daughter on the other side of the world, I hesitate because really, I am doing absolutely fine.

I have a front row seat to my daughter’s semester abroad, and while I am certainly not complaining about the accessibility to it all, I can’t help but wonder whether it is too much. Whether it is a less authentic experience for her because I have this much access. Or perhaps it is just another extension of what it means to be raising kids today. For better or worse, I’ve been entwined with my kids’ well-being since the beginning, so why did I think it would just stop simply because she’s 7,788 miles away? Regardless, it seems, our kids don’t know any different, to them the experience is their own.

“People say it’s life changing over there,” Emily told me on numerous occasions leading up to the trip. Isn’t that what I want for my daughter? An experience that grants her the kind of life-changing independence I was afforded as a college student abroad.

So I feel torn. I want to know in real time what it felt like for her to see her first African sunset, and what it was like to hike up Table Mountain; I want to know what the Atlantic Ocean looks like on that side of the world. But at the same time, I worry that it is too much to want, and that I am depriving her of the space and freedom to call the experience her own.

It’s not that I am trying to live vicariously through my children. It’s that with this particular experience, perhaps because of the distance, or because my daughter seems so wholeheartedly open to sharing it with me, I can’t help but yearn to be a part of it. To feel what Emily means when she tells me, “it’s easy to breathe here.” And while I can talk to her every day, and scroll through her pictures, and hear all about that air from afar, the fact is I’m still not exhaling it beside her.

The adventure is hers and hers alone.

Randi Olin is co-founder and executive editor of Motherwell. She loves to FaceTime with her daughter on the other side of the world, but is looking forward to a real-time hug when she visits her soon in Cape Town. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

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