They hold the door open for us when they pick us up from the airport. They help unload the suitcases you won’t unpack all summer and wheel your rolling backpack into your childhood room. They say they’re so excited to have you home again—for a week before you go to New York, a month before you head back to Philly, maybe even the whole summer. And then, they— parents, siblings, the people you call your family— ask you about Penn. You sure as hell don’t tell the truth.
We present our families with a glossy, admissions-brochure overview of college life. The realities of Penn are a lot messier– from the leather whip in the closet to the monsters inside our heads.
This week, Street presents a collection of the things we can’t tell our families.
Hey fam! (Yeah, that’s just short for family and not some weird Internet lingo because I don’t want to have to explain that. Please don’t make me.) Yeah, things are great. Especially now that it’s summer. I had a great few days just relaxing and cleaning my room and hanging out with people as they left. (I reached varying stages of drunk every day post finals, crescendo–ing to when I went to AC for a bachelorette party, spent more money than I care to admit to myself and got so drunk that I found a random gigantic bruise on my leg the next morning.) Yeah, I’ve just been catching up on sleep, really boring, ya know? My plans for the weekend? Probably just finish moving into my summer sublet (much more fun while high). Omigod yeah, I am so glad this semester’s over. It’s been really busy. (Remember when I told you I’d cut back on social stuff and extracurriculars so I wouldn’t lose too much sleep with those six credits? I didn’t do that.) Yeah, all my grades are in. I did okay on most things, not super well, though. That econ class I told you about was a little disappointing (hey there, C+). Oh I sound kind of down? I’m fine! Just a bit tired (from recovering from the shittiest breakup from a relationship you had no idea about, since you’re very Muslim. While I’m on the phone with you, I am too.) I know I know, I also wish I could come home for a few days before my internship starts (I don’t; here, I don’t have a curfew, why would I go home?). Yeah I miss you guys too. (I really do.)
I can’t tell you, Mom, because you’ll ask too many questions. You’ll want to know his name and how I knew him and why I was in his room that night. You’ll want to know how I let myself get that drunk and what I was wearing and why can’t I remember all the details— why I can’t remember how far he went. Why I am certain this was assault. You’ll ask me the same series of questions the woman in the College office used, after I came to her office sobbing that the nightmares wouldn’t let me sleep enough to study the next day: Are you sure? Why didn’t you report him? Why haven't you told more people? What do you expect me to say?
And maybe, like her, you’ll tell me there’s nothing you can do to help me.
There's a lot of things I could never explain to my family. Like how I actually sprained my ankle and had to get an expensive x-ray and even more expensive MRI because I skateboarded down the Locust Walk bridge and wiped out. Or how I actually broke my glasses and almost got concussed because I blacked out from too much Franzia (who hasn't?) and apparently thought that giving my friend a piggyback ride was a good idea. (Losing my balance and falling headfirst onto the pavement was not part of that good idea.) And it would be better not to explain what a line is and that I did one in an alley in Center City while I was tripping on acid. I doubt that saying that I was at least with a friend would make any of those stories better.
However, I do feel like my parents would be proud to know how much we discussed vaginas in my gender studies class considering how much they've always wanted their queer son to have a girlfriend. Especially after I brought a boy home that I met on Tinder.
Two months ago I was one of six students to be featured in Street’s article on eating disorders, and during the waiting period before it was published I felt like I was on trial. I remember spending the entire interview picking at my jeans and pulling at my shirt in hopes that I would be able to fidget myself out of existing, but since the article came out I’ve received incredible support from my partner, close friends and even professors. It’s not the right method for everyone, but talking about my disorder in such a public way has made it easier for me to face it personally. The only time this doesn’t apply is when I go home.
One of the hardest parts of mental illness is feeling utterly alone, and leaving all of your friends as you depart for breaks doesn’t make that any easier. I appreciate and love my parents, but there’s a barrier when it comes to opening up to them about my flaws and failures. They already spend time fixating on grades and wondering if I’m actually succeeding in college, so I’ve struggled with finding a way to say, “Mom and Dad, I think about my body everyday and I hate it.” Not really the thing they want to hear. I don’t know if I’m ever going to tell them; maybe it’s because I worry they’ll be disappointed, or maybe I’m still hurt that they haven’t picked up on it after all these years. I think my biggest fear is that they really just won’t care—the most isolating of the possible outcomes.
For now, I’m going to let myself continue to work with my disorder day by day with the support I have from my friends and academic network. It’s never going to be easy, but I’m crossing my fingers that one day I’ll find the right way to tell my parents what I told to a whole school.
The morning after Walnut Walk, I wake up to a phone call from my mother coming to help me pack. Fuck fuck fuck. I forgot about her arrival.
When parents arrive, it is typical to do the pre–parent screening around your room and get rid of the unmentionables that they know exist.
12 empty wine bottles—I was saving those for a project but I guess, check.
Your bursar receipt that indicates I've spent $250 on coffee in the past month—check.
I return back to the comfort of my bed and decide to take a quick cat nap before she arrives.
When she rings my doorbell, I pretend I haven’t been sleeping till noon. Before you know it, I see my mother going through my closet, throwing her cares to the wind when it comes to finding incriminating evidence that her daughter is not, in fact, the angel child of years past.
As close as I am to my mother, there are some things you just can’t explain. While we have a close relationship and I definitely TMI too often, some elements of the person you have become in college just can’t be revealed.
Case in point: the pinnacle of this cleaning experience was when she picked up an old leather purse. She held it up and knew me well enough to check before looking.
“Do I even want to know what’s in here?” she asked.
No mom, you do not want to see the complex, under the bed restraints that my sometimes–hookup bought for us to use. Sorry not sorry, your daughter enjoys being tied up. I recommend that she also doesn’t look in another bag in my closet, which houses some sort of whip.
Sort of a fluke that this happened, as it has happened before. If your parents know you well enough—they will not ask. If they don’t, I recommend you either do what I did the first time—tell your father that the handcuffs were “just part of a champagne and shackles date night”, or simply break out in song.
My parents have always said that freshman year is all about exploration and finding yourself and your true passions. But I don’t think that they meant that in terms of figuring out how many shots it takes me to get me in my “zone” and how good I am at finding elevated surfaces. While my parents thought I was staying awake to pull all–nighters in Van Pelt, I was out trying to decide whether I enjoyed “the scene” better than the frats.
I’m a freshman; I knew I was bound to have roommate drama. When I explained our living situation to my parents, I always talked about all of the annoying things my roommate did, but what I left out were my mishaps. Like when I brought a boy back to the room and found out, much later, that my roommate was asleep in her bed. Or when I hosted a pre-game in our room the night before her big exam. So yeah, maybe I deserved some of the blame. But my parents would be proud to know that I did apologize with a kind note (and an airplane bottle of Amsterdam vodka).
What parents also don’t understand is that the club selection process at Penn is more cutthroat than the undergrad admissions process. So no, Mom, I don’t know why I didn’t get into the volunteer mentoring program and I’m not sure why the art club never e-mailed me back (does Penn even have an art club?). But what you should know is that of all of the 15+ clubs I signed up for I only got into three, and I’m happy with that.
And hey, what mama don’t know won’t hurt her.