Whether you’re taking your first or your last child to college this fall, my advice is, “Hang in there, you’ll all be OK in a while.” I’ve done both and lived to tell the tale.
But admittedly, undoing all the underpinnings of daily parenthood is a very odd process. You’ve spent nearly 20 years building the structure of parenthood—teaching them to dress themselves, holding them close when they’re sick or sad, cheering the speech they give and the goal they score, nagging them about homework and chores, worrying about their friends and who’s driving—but now you’re supposed to quickly dismantle all that daily caretaking. You’re supposed to gracefully move into the next phase—occasional bursts of intense parenting—which is what being the parent of an adult consists of. I almost wrote “parent of an adult child.” That paradox explains how weird it is to send a young adult out into the world. Your son or daughter is and isn’t an adult, is and isn’t a child, but you’re always a parent. Sigh. It’s confusing.
Becoming a parent was a major adjustment for me, even though I’d longed to be a mother and was delighted when I became pregnant. Learning to share my body and change my eating and drinking habits—more protein, less junk, no caffeine, no alcohol—was hard but worth it. Assuming the role of responsible parent was even harder. I always had to think about someone else and bring the equipment he’d need—food, diapers, pacifier. I had to learn to plan ahead, make sure there was gas in the car and money in my purse—no more flying by the seat of my pants when I had a baby with me. Staying out partying didn’t make sense anymore when we had to drive a babysitter home late, and I’d just have to get up with a baby at 6:00 a.m.
Soon I became accustomed to being responsible and it no longer felt like a sacrifice. Soon it was second nature to put the kids first—making sure they got fed something relatively nutritious before they got too cranky, scheduling my plans around naps and bedtime at first, and later, around homework and extracurricular activities. Juggling work, daycare, and the kids’ schedules. My life was crazy-bizzy, but good.
When my kids were young, the biggest challenge of parenting was having the stamina to do it all. Later, the challenge became thinking through the best way to handle a kid’s emotional and moral development—teaching them how to handle mean kids, how not to be a mean kid, deciding how long they needed to keep practicing something they weren’t good at, teaching them how to be their own person, how take care of themselves, how to take care of others, and so on.
By the time my kids were teenagers, I could hear the warning bells—ACT tests, talk of colleges, college visits. I knew their departure was coming, and I knew it was how their life was supposed to go. But it was hard to wrap my head around the reality of them leaving. These people I love so much, who have been the center of my life, are really going? I could hardly bear to think about how big a hole they’d leave in my life, and yet and I had to help them go, because that’s what was right for them. Occasionally they were annoying, so was easier to think of letting them go. It helped to remind myself that the goal of parenthood is to raise a person who’s capable of being independent, that I should measure my effectiveness as a parent by their ability to be OK without me—but after nearly 20 years of worrying about them daily—well, old habits die hard.
But each of our sons left and I lived through it.
Soon I learned that they still needed me but in a different way—not daily, but occasionally, in intense spurts. Their problems were harder—how to deal with all the drinking in the dorms, how to handle roommates who wreck your stuff and are late with the rent, how to find the right career path.
My husband and I lived through a number of jangling adjustments: from being alone to having them back, from being delighted to see them and their friends to wishing they’d pick up the pop cans and pizza boxes, from acknowledging their independence to setting ground rules for the courtesies a house full of adults needs.
They have turned into adults I genuinely like and enjoy as people. I have turned into a mom who rarely says, “It’s supposed to be hot/cold/snowing, don’t you think you should wear shorts/pants/a jacket?”
In fact, I’ve gotten so used to my youngest being gone, that the night before he returned to college this year, to my profound embarrassment, I forgot to cook dinner. I don’t mean I neglected to cook a special goodbye dinner, but I didn’t remember to cook any dinner whatsoever (bad Mommy). So we ate nachos, leftovers, and frozen pizza. And it was fine. Because now we’re all adults, and I don’t have to be in charge of meals.
But my youngest still welcomed the box of cookies I stayed up late baking the night before.