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Beginning or Ending? When Our Kids Go Off to College

Our college-bound kids know full well that they are leaving their childhood and embarking on the extraordinary journey of crafting their future adult selves.
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I quickly typed out the title of this blog and then spent the next two days staring at it with some unease. Who was I referring to when I questioned "Beginning or Ending?" Was the question really directed at us parents, as the subtitle suggests, or at our soon-to-be migrating children? Why so black and white? Most family transitions are characterized by alternating states of enthusiasm and upset and eventually a new homeostasis. Was I indulging in hyperbole? Or was I just responding to high emotions, accumulated from dozens of phone calls in recent weeks from anxious teens and weepy moms, both equally distressed by an impending college transition?

A couple of days of distraction, and some additional thought, made it clear to me that I wanted to write for both parents, moms in particular, and their college-bound kids. That, when it comes to this particular milestone, there are enough beginnings and endings to go around.

When our kids go off to college, whether it's our first or our last, everything changes for us and for them. For us, there's an empty bedroom to start with. Less noise. Less laundry. Fewer groceries. And an avalanche of feelings. And for our kids? A bedroom with a stranger in it. More noise. More laundry. Fewer groceries. And an avalanche of feelings. Although it may look like we're heading in entirely different directions, actually both our children and ourselves, are engaged in parallel processes: trying to manage growth and risk, attachment and separation, the crafting of new identities and the navigation of a raft of beginnings and endings. Major tasks for all involved. Yet the emphasis has always been on helping our kids navigate through this thicket with barely a nod to its impact on mothers. As a result, we can feel blindsided by unexpected and intense feelings of ambivalence, sadness and loss when our children leave home.

Much has been written about the challenges kids face as they make college choices and embark on their higher education. By definition, kids have less experience and resilience than we do, so it is appropriate that time and resources are expended on easing their concerns. But often, leading up to their actual college experience, far too much attention has been focused on the wrong things. GPAs, SAT and ACT scores and AP classes have typically received the lion's share of attention. When it comes to actually choosing the school they will attend, selectivity, unfortunately, is often valued over the far more important "fit." After a seemingly endless series of meetings with guidance counselors, school college counselors, private college counselors, SAT prep tutors and assorted well-meaning adults, most kids tell me, "I will scream if one more person asks me about college." They desperately need "re-charging" and tend to beat a hasty retreat to their room and their peer group once their college decision is made. The parental equivalent of this, " if you tell me one more time, I'll scream" scenario involves the bromide about how good we're supposed to feel now that our child is going off to college. The incessant reminder that the whole point of parenting was to raise a child who would be is resilient, curious, competent and capable of going out into the world? A truism, which nonetheless, can feel alternately irritating or totally beside the point. Kids do not have the market cornered on confusing feelings during this fevered time.

For many of our children, the very act of leaving for college marks the first time in their often over-scheduled, overprotected lives that they are aware of being quite literally "on their own." It is a time of great exhilaration and great anxiety. Kids have all kinds of strategies for lessening the intensity of their feelings during this transition. They may become impossibly difficult during their senior year of high school, often a transparent attempt at bravado with the implied message, "I can't wait to leave." They can make it easy for us to concur. They may become sullen and introverted or hyper excitable and vaguely manic. They may lock themselves in their rooms for hours and socialize only with their peers. Or they may cling to home and family -- suddenly making suggestions about family activities that until recently elicited predictable eye rolls and scornful looks. They may have been doing their own laundry for years, but unexpectedly develop symptoms of a pseudo-dementia and can't remember how to turn on the washing machine, the dishwasher or how to make a bed.

Our college-bound kids know full well that they are leaving their childhood and embarking on the extraordinary journey of crafting their future adult selves. They are leaving the safety of home, the bed they have slept in for years, their neighborhood friends, the familiarity of the street they have lived on and an uncountable number of predictabilities that have shaped their lives. They are taking on the tasks of unsupervised self-management, intimate commitment, unfettered exploration and deep identity development and consolidation. The endings and beginnings are almost too numerous to count. Knowing the magnitude of this task, we try our best to be gentle with them. Our impulse to protect our kids from our own conflicted feelings, our worries and our sadness, is necessary and appropriate, and yes, difficult. Then again, we're adults and they're not. Not yet.

Colleges and universities are well aware of the difficult feelings that many of us experience when we hand our children over to strangers. Drop your child off at college and you are likely to be ushered into at least one, if not a series, of talks by both academics and mental health workers designed to allay the preoccupations of anxious parents. After assuring us that our children are in good hands, and while they may be newbies at the moment, we are told that they are certain to emerge (an unspecified number of years later) as robust, well-educated young adults ready to take on the challenges of a rapidly changing world. Our own feelings of discomfort and sadness are briefly addressed and then a predictable cacophony of anxious, preoccupied and often stunningly off the mark questions follows. "Are the courses rigorous enough?" (Didn't you and your kid check the course book before enrolling?) " What if my daughter doesn't like her roommate?" (Let her figure it out. Good social skills and the ability to communicate are reported as the most important skills for new hires out in the business world.) Do cell phones have to be turned off in class? (Yes, when your kid is in college, he or she is supposed to be paying attention in class. You're not spending the equivalent of most families' yearly salary to be able to "just check in" with your child.) What majors offer the greatest opportunity for employment in our global economy? (Today? Or when our kids actually graduate - in which case no one knows.) At the parent "orientation" when my first son went away to college I listened intently. By my third son I doodled, made lists and was quite certain that my own parents never had to be "educated" about how to leave my brother or I at college . By my third go-around, the questions were unsurprising and familiar and they all seemed to have one thing in common - they would eventually have to be answered by our children. How to manage conflict, how to sort options, how to make choices. College offers our children the opportunity to make manage their lives without their parent's handprint on every decision.

The experience of launching our children, of dropping them off at college, of waving goodbye while trying to look buoyant instead of miserable is both liberating and terrifying. After 18 or 24 or in my case, 30 years of continuous mothering I found that when my sons, left for college there was a part of me that was absolutely bereft. Thirty years is a long time to hold a position, and if not exactly fired, I was, in many ways, put out of business. No one needed to be picked up, to be fed, to be listened to or lectured to on a regular basis anymore. When they all had left the house, I was relieved, excited and a bit hollow. No counselors standing by to help me navigate my conflicting feelings of relief, guilt and most disconcertingly, loss. I'd lie on their beds and replay the years of warmth and cuddling and messy shared snacks and late night talks. My husband who seemed more relieved than depressed, more happy-go-lucky than lethargic, felt like a stranger to me. For a while both before and after each of my boys left I felt that it was all endings and no beginnings. So after weeks of crying jags, way too many phone calls to my sons, and a host of poorly conceived self-soothing attempts (the freshman 15 is not restricted to freshmen) I did what women in distress know will bring them relief, I turned to my friends. Ultimately, I adjusted, just as my children did.

As we step back and turn the attention we have lavished on our kids, onto ourselves, often for the first time in decades, we find that we have more time to pursue the myriad of interests and talents that were put on hold. We can actually nourish friendships and marriages in ways that were simply unavailable to us before. Too busy. Too tired. Too preoccupied. For years, when my boys were at home, I couldn't fall asleep until I heard each one of their keys turn in the door. But once they were in college I found myself drifting off easily not having the vaguest idea where they were-- until they came home on vacation, when I was again hyper alert to the sound of the car coming up the driveway. Just as college is an experiment in independence for our children, so it is for us as well. We no longer have to attend to our child's welfare every waking minute. We assume, usually rightfully, that they have learned much of what they need to lead their lives relatively independently. We are free to pick up the threads in our own lives that we had dropped over the years of child raising, (and working as well for most of us) and can continue to weave our own lives forward. Pick up a neglected skill, cultivate a new one, volunteer, mentor, do something. None of us should be marking time once our children are out of the house. It's a terrible message to them and a disservice to ourselves.

Growing up, growing older, letting our children move into their own lives are not exactly decisions we make. With a little luck they simply happen. Better to meet these transitions with optimism, enthusiasm, humor and grace. Of course we mourn for what is lost, but we also need to rejoice over what is gained. Over and over, we have practiced for the moment that our children begin their own lives in earnest. We have allowed them to let go of our hand, to cross the street, to ride their bikes, to choose their friends, to come in late, to make their own choices. When our children go off to college it is both a beginning and an ending. Then again, so is most of life.