If we are lucky, something enormous will happen to each of us as parents. Something as monumental and life-changing as the day we brought home our first baby. Something that, when it happened to me, was the saddest, most heartbreaking moment of parenthood.
Our first child leaves for college.
Now go back and read that first paragraph again. And think about it a little while. Because there is nothing sad or heartbreaking about it, really. Yes, it’s a big shift in our lives as mothers and fathers. And certainly, it signals the end of childhood, of parenting as we have been doing it for the 18 or so years, up to that day you put the extra-long sheets on the twin bed in the dorm room, wondering how you are going to live without seeing that beautiful face every day.
But here’s the thing – this is what you have been working so hard for, all those years. This is why you sang to your baby, read your toddler books, helped your 2nd grader with homework, took your 6th grader to Washington DC. This is why you paid for individualized pitching lessons, for SAT prep, for private high schools or one on one tutoring. This is where you hoped your child would go, what you wanted your child to do, with all of your heart.
And the alternative – for those of you sending your children away to school, who believe that living on campus and being a little (or a lot) far from home is part of the learning experience – the alternative, having your child at home as he turns 19, 20, 21, and on and on…is that what you really want? Probably not. Having lived that situation for a semester, I can promise you it’s not a good thing.
However, the real tragedy is that the only things we should be feeling are overjoyed, thrilled, proud, excited…we should be celebrating this experience, not lamenting what is gone. Mothers – and fathers, too – go into mourning and expect daily phone calls, frequent texts, updates, and so on from their college freshmen. We long for our children as though they have been sent to the frozen tundra to do hard labor, rather than to a college campus where they are meeting interesting new people, learning from brilliant professors and experiencing their first moments of adulthood.
We need to stop.
If this is the biggest trauma of parenthood, this letting go and having an empty bedroom that makes us a little teary-eyed, then we are the lucky ones. We are fortunate beyond belief. We need to stop crying, look around us and realize that everyone is doing exactly what they are supposed to do. Parenting, if you are doing it right, comes to a point where the day-to-day work is no longer necessary. Parenting, if you have done it successfully, becomes a part-time job rather than a full-time obsession. Parenting, if you are good at it, leads to children leaving home and finding a place for themselves in the world that doesn’t include you, every day, all the time.
Going to college is the first step for them. Finding something to do that you love as much as you loved raising your children is the first step for you. Go find it, and turn off your phone every so often. Your college kids will be ok, and so will you.
It’s sad when our kids leave home, often never coming back to live full time again. It’s melancholy to think that all those years of fierce devotion and constant attention need to wind down now so they can become individuals, separate from us in a meaningful way. It’s lonely, sometimes, when there is only one or two of you left in the family home. We are parents most of all, so giving up that job isn’t easy at all. But remember this: there is nothing tragic about raising great kids and sending them off to learn, to grow, to evolve – to leave childhood behind. This is what you wanted. This is what needs to be.