Besides being a youth worker, I am a mom. My own children are on the verge of adulthood. The youngest is a freshman at University of Illinois. My older children did not follow ordinary post-high-school tracks, so this is my first experience with a large U.S. University since my own Penn State days. So last weekend was my first “Moms Weekend” – and it made me wonder... Am I the crazy one?
It all started off strange. I was excited visit U of I, but it was peculiar to me was that there was really no “Moms Weekend” schedule published or shared by the school’s otherwise-on-top-of-it Parent and Family Programs Office. They email me right away if there has been a crime on campus. And I do receive their e-updates. But nothing for Moms. Huh?
So I went looking for a schedule, and up until about a week before I arrived for my two-night stay, I found this: a two-hour “kickoff” reception, a craft show, and a Sunday brunch. What? This felt a bit sparse – and lame. A few days before the weekend, I finally found a longer list of activities on a daily event calendar. Discounted museum visits, a few student performances, a free baseball game, a bag tournament on the green, discounts at the bookstore and local retailers, a service project and free access to the student rec center for parents with their student. OK, nothing too exciting, but I picked out a few things my son might be able to do with me. Alas, as he is not the service-project or performance-enjoying type, he politely backed out of most because he “needed to sleep and to study for big exams” (aka fortnite). OK… we would at least have meals together. I wanted to play in the bags tournament – but didn’t make it since it was at 1 pm and we finished lunch at almost 2. We went to the green to see if anyone was still playing, there was no one there. Must have been a short event. The highlight of my weekend was to have my son give me a tour of the lecture halls and study rooms where he learns. They were empty, but some had markings on the board and formula papers left behind that gave me a momentary breathtaking glimpse at the brainpower that must buzz in those rooms when class is in session. Oh, and we did take advantage of the free rec center pass, so I got to work out in my son’s gym. That was cool.
What is the point of Moms Weekend? I asked my son. He said this. "Moms Weekend is for moms to get drunk with their students." What?! No! Can’t be! My son told me at the beginning of the year that the level of drinking at U of I is astounding. That the partying is non-stop – every day. Every night. I initially blew off this commentary as his jadedness projected on this event as well. I held a naïve belief that college kids would want to be on their best behavior for mom’s visit – that they would want to highlight the things tuition is paying for. I was wrong.
On Saturday morning, when my son was asleep and I was labeling bags for a food-packing project at the stadium, I met a young international student from Nigeria. We got to talking and I asked that besides food and weather, what surprised him most about the U.S. He said the culture. I asked – like what? His answer: like Moms Weekend. He did not elaborate at the time, but reflecting on that answer now, I know he meant that it was strange for moms, en masse, to make an annual pilgrimage to U of I get drunk with their students.
Walking through campus and having lunch in town on Saturday, I saw it. Middle-aged women were drinking wine and bloody marys at lunch. A large and loud group of them was peddling one of those “pubcycles” where about 10 women were seated around a long bar with their feet pushing bicycle pedals and a young man in the middle was making them laugh and drink like teenagers. The lady in the back was waving a larger-than-normal wine bottle in the air. At 1 pm. Who are these people? Whose moms?
Later that day, I drove past fraternity houses where sons and their moms partied on the front porches and front lawns holding red cups and playing beer pong. Some were walking on or near campus with clear cups of wine – sipping with no regard to whether this was ok or not. I mean, “this is a smoke-free campus” signs were everywhere, but open wine cups are fine? Props to the Alpha Gamma Rhos, though. They did NOT have drinks out and had a wholesome game of bags set up on their front lawn. My son says that everyone knows they are really good guys. Farmers – yup.
Sorority houses were not as obvious. I can’t say they were drinking behind those pretty white doors, but I did see lots of daughters and mothers out on the town later.
After dinner in downtown Urbana Saturday, I dropped my son off for the night and cruised, once again, through campus and town. The party scene was rocking and the line-ups outside all the bars were incredibly long. I hate waiting in line. Let’s face it. I am often irritated when there are more than two people ahead of me at the grocery check-out. I definitely would NOT wait in line at any establishment that smells like booze a block away and proudly advertises half-priced “slurp juice” (yep - fortnite strikes again) on its marquee. Do I sound like a prude yet? Up until Saturday I thought that people my age would not do that either. But there they were – a long line peppered with dozens of middle aged women and a few middle-aged men and their kids. Wow. Really?
And finally, on an eerily quiet Sunday morning, I went to campus for coffee at 8 am and saw the strewn about bottles, cups, cans, trash. Typical college-party aftermath. But I knew the moms were in on it.
I took my son to a farewell brunch. He decided we should not buy tickets to the on-campus brunches because they were “lame”. We tried to get into some downtown restaurants, most advertising bottomless mimosas and two-for-one bloody marys. Packed. We settled on a steakhouse because that is the only place we could get a table. The mediocre food took way too long to get to us. I noticed the moms around us thoroughly enjoying the raspberry mimosas and make-your-own bloody mary bar this restaurant featured as its Moms Weekend specials. I wondered to myself “who is driving these moms home?”
As we left, our server, with half a smile and a wink, asked if I had a “good Moms Weekend”. I answered that it seems that all moms do is drink with their students. She said something to the effect of “That’s right. For lots of moms, this is the first time to really let loose and have fun with their kids and they love to re-live their own college days!”
Smh. I thought a world-class university might at least try to show off excellence in higher education to moms who are paying tuition. Or at least a measure of Illini pride. After all, they emphasize these things at campus visits before a student applies. “This is a great school and look at the world-class education your child has access to here.” Is what I imagined. And, maybe even “hey – we are one big family and proud of our school and its traditions.” I was sadly mistaken. Or I thought maybe I was the one who was crazy.
When I got home and reported my shock and surprise to others, they did not seem surprised at all. Many parents knew that was what it was about! Gosh - did I feel stupid - or crazy - for not knowing this.
I love having fun as much as the next person (maybe more) and, no, I am not anti-alcohol – although I feel like a prude now. Alcohol is part of so many celebrations and get-togethers and I see no harm in having a couple of drinks with your young-adult child. I expect to do it at my nephew’s wedding in June.
But for some reason, I did not expect this at college on Moms Weekend.
Why am I so uncomfortable with this? Is it me?
I think I know the answer to my question. I am uncomfortable because I know with certainty that alcohol, drugs, party culture, sex are not just harmless ways to have fun and socialize. This exact behavior derails so many people, young and old alike, and leads them to dark places. Addiction is not the only dark place. In my decade of seeing teens and their families through adolescence and off to young adulthood, I have witnessed a plethora of heartbreaking problems: school failure, legal issues, rape, violence, destroyed relationships and families, extreme mental distress, hospitalization, destructive behavior, self-harm, ruined and lost property, bullying, shame and self-loathing, injury and even death. And that does not include the damage that alcohol and drugs have been proven to inflict on the teenage brain. I deliberately tell the youth I serve that today’s party culture, which is convincingly sold as the happy norm, may seem fun and exciting, but is far from healthy or normal. It is decidedly not what God has in mind when promising abundant life (yes, it’s a church thing). The challenge we face today is to seek out and live in joy and curiosity and connection without intoxication. To really live! I thought that is what my generation wanted to teach the next.
Apparently not. Upon reflection, it dawned on me that we, meaning my generation, actually took seriously the right the Beastie Boys so fervently encouraged us to fight for in 1986 (love that song, by the way!). I suppose we were too young to join a real civil rights movement, so we got behind this one, instead. Ignore law, ignore authority, ignore sensibilities, ignore warnings, ignore statistics, ignore evidence and embrace our hard-fought right to party - oh- and make sure to pass it down to future generations. Yay us.
So I am just going to state this outright. I am not on board with this. I fervently agree that our Creator endowed us with the unalienable right to pursue happiness, but I’m pretty certain the same Creator didn't mean that this was the way. I think the wisdom Paul shares with the Corinthians applies here: I have the freedom to do anything, but not everything is helpful. (1 Cor 6:12)
I know that many of our kids’ college days will inevitably include partying, but that is not the thing I want to go to campus to see or support. When I visit, I want to see what I think are the more important aspects of their college days – the ones I pay for and the ones I think our young people need more cheerleaders for: mastering tough subjects, discovering how to be curious and learn about the world, finding help when help is needed, developing character with integrity and honesty, connecting with smart people who can teach them things I cannot, connecting with cool people and causes and activities in their broad new world, discovering strength, passion and leadership abilities they never knew they had, learning how to use new technology, finding out what it means to be a good roommate, a good friend and a good adult on their own, without me reminding or telling them, exploring a new world with curiosity and excitement, doing cool things.
Am I the crazy one? Maybe.