Kids leaving for college: It’s a whole new category of acceptable adult grief.
When you and I were kids, our parents were always talking about their “roof,” and what we could and couldn’t do while we lived “under” it. The clear implication being, If you want to be happy and free and self-actualized, then get the hell out.
The other day, I got a touching email from my older sister Susan, telling me she’s been thinking of me lately, what with Scout graduating high school and preparing to leave for college. Surely there must be other people Susan ought to be thinking of, who are going through worse things than having raised a child who is ready and able to fly into her own blue sky.
Susan reminded me of what my mother said about this: “Carol was the one who told me that parenthood was for masochists because if you do your job right, you end up with empty bedrooms in your house.”
Okay, so parents thought about that stuff back then, too. But did they talk about it all the time? Whine about it like we do now? Research tells me the term “empty nest syndrome” was first written in 1914, but only “clinically identified and popularized in the 1970s as a group of symptoms including depression, loneliness, and low self-esteem, found among mothers whose last child had recently moved out of the family home.”
Mothers. Well, mothers have always been seen as softies—always overreacting to perceived threats like drowning from swimming too soon after eating an ice cream sandwich, and responsible for rushing the conclusions of perfectly good world wars. “Put on your coat,” my dad used to tell my sister and me. “Your mother’s cold.”
But it was neither inevitable nor acceptable that grown men—or well-rounded grown women—would “grieve” their kids leaving the house in order to make their lives in the world. Parents dying, you grieved. Friends dying, you grieved. The president being assassinated, you grieved. But your kids going off to college? “I wasn’t sad,” a Baby Boomer friend said to me recently. “I was proud!”
I remember my mother telling me in a whisper that when she and my dad dropped me off at Kent State University, he choked up a little in the car as he told her, “There goes a perfectly good boy.” But that was it, at least as far as I was concerned.
I don’t doubt that this will be hard—maybe even harrowing. One of my best pals, Paul, told me when his youngest kid left for college, the silence the very next morning: “That packs a wallop.” And I’ve been dreading that punch ever since. It’s less than two months away, and I’ve already got my hands up, and my chin in my chest.
And now my sister Susan is Angelo Dundee, telling me there are great things ahead for our family, our daughter included: “Things it’s impossible to imagine now because she isn’t done becoming herself. I really love you so much and have such great respect and gratitude for your having brought that little being into the world and being who you all are in our family. All of our lives are better because of you.”
I mean, that ought to be enough for me, right?
I’m trying to play these next two months as mindfully, as meaningfully as I can. Just the other night, I stole an occasion to ride my kid on my motorcycle, along the long walk we used to take every day from her Montessori pre-school, to our house—pointing out all the the places along the way where I used to say all my Dad things, and where she used to say all her Kid things, back. Do you remember?
I am glad she knows how much I love her, and how much I and her mother will miss her when she leaves.
But I am even more glad that she knows that we know that’s exactly none of her concern, and that her main job now, as my sister said, is “becoming herself.”
She looks to me like she’s well on her way.