I've been lucky to have great jobs -- tech entrepreneur, corporate exec, author. But the coolest job I've ever had is being mom to our only child, Ally, a brilliant 18-year-old headed off to college this year. She's ready, excited and full of anticipation. I'm, to put it mildly, conflicted. I've not yet reached the point where the upside of empty-nesting is clear. Nope, right now I'm just a mess of emotion that ranges from sadness to terror. I'm hoping technology comes to my rescue.
When I left home for college in the pre-internet era, my parents told me I could call them collect only "in case of emergency"; for any non-emergency sharing, I could write them a letter. Know how many letters home I wrote? That's right, not one. I was close to my parents but not enough to pen letters to them. And, since, happily, there were no emergencies, I never called. In fact, during my years away at college, my parents and I connected only when we were face to face. In other words, not too often.
As Ally heads off to college, I harbor no hope for a handwritten letter. I am, however, holding out for a few texts per week, the occasional video chat, and the random voice message or actual call that gives us some sense of the kind of day she's having. If any of that happens, then maybe this empty-nesting thing will start looking better.
When Ally first started going out into the world without an adult, we had a rule that she had to text us every two hours. Her texts usually read, "I'm alive," "Still alive," "Can I get hot chocolate?" It never mattered what she texted, only that we heard from her. Even a snarky text was welcome.
We no longer expect to hear from Ally every few hours. But sometimes it helps. A few weeks ago, she and some friends left early in the morning to hike in Glacier National Park. Glacier is one of the most spectacularly beautiful places on earth -- it's also one of the most technologically unreachable. A hiker there is more likely to see a grizzly, a double rainbow and snow in August all in one day than to spot two bars on a cellphone. It's part of the charm of the Park. But that night, when we hadn't heard a peep all day, I asked my husband, "What time do we call Search and Rescue?" 30 minutes later, a text came in that said, "We're leaving the park now." I finally relaxed. Five words in a text -- that was all it took.
Every parent has a similar story. The good news for us is that of college-age kids (18- to 24-year-olds), 95% own a cell phone and 97% of these mobile owners use text messaging. In fact, 18- to 24-year-olds send or receive an average of 3200 text messages per month.
For parents who want to actually hear their kids' voices or see their faces, there's even better news. It turns out that calling and texting are highly correlated; frequent texters make a large number of voice calls, and vice versa. Video calls and new apps like Voxer, which turn mobile phones into walkie-talkies, and instant voice messaging services round out the options. With all that, it's possible that, even though she's at college five and a half hours away, I may get to connect pretty often with Ally. I hope so.
Remember Maxwell Smart's shoe phone on the TV show Get Smart? That was the "smart" phone of my youth. Today, our mobile phones do just about everything -- send videos, track locations, text and talk. When Ally was applying to her college honors program, she texted us about her honors essay: "in your opinion, what is the greatest challenge your generation will face?... (any ideas?)" I was flattered that she'd asked and choked up by her reminder that, while she may be hundreds of miles away, I may still get to be part of her life -- sometimes even someone she'll reach out to for essay advice.
The experts say empty-nesting is a wonderful phase, full of new adventure. I have no reason to doubt them. I'm thrilled that Ally's ready to go off to college, awed by what she's accomplished to date and inspired by knowing that one generation's imaginary shoe phone can become another generation's actual smartphone. Mostly, I'm grateful to have more options than my parents did for staying in touch, especially in these first few months when it's new for us all.
Whether it's by email, text, seeing each other via video chat or just hearing her voice in a call or voicemail -- my husband and I will happily take any or all of it. Because letting go is tough and, no matter what else we may do, being a parent really is the coolest job ever.
Diane Smith serves on the advisory board for Mobile Future and was co-founder and chief executive officer of Auroras Entertainment, an IPTV and advanced media services company in Kalispell, Mont.