"I'm not getting out."
I sat behind the wheel of the car; Jennie sat beside me with her tattered stuffed teddy bear at her side, and we looked out at the line of young men and women laughing and chatting as they waited for the doors of the freshman dormitory to open.
"I'm not getting out," she repeated.
I panicked. My mind flashed back to the first day of nursery school. "Don't leave me," were her words then.
"But you wanted to get here early to get the best bed," I reminded her.
"I've changed my mind," she replied. That was evident.
We had just traveled for seventeen hours, over two days. Jennie was beginning her freshman year at collegeour first child to leave home. Was I going to have to turn around and go back to St. Louis with her still beside me?
"Suppose we get out and just stand next to the car." She agreed reluctantly. I was relieved to see her leave the teddy bear in the car.
Jennie made it to the line of seemingly relaxed, happy freshmenand was swept along by an overanxious young woman who handled her anxiety by hyperactivity instead of shyness. I looked over and saw Jennie blending in and looking just as relaxed as the others and let out a sigh of relief.
Within a half hour, I was excess baggage. Now it was my turn to separate. "Why don't you wander around campus and stop back in a few hours," Jennie suggested diplomatically. (What about all my fantasies of helping you fix up your room, chat with your roommates a bit, and see what coed living looks like? Of course, I kept these thoughts to myself.)
I smiled diplomatically in return, said good-bye, and began a somewhat aimless tour of the campus, passing other parents along theway who looked as lost as I felt. When I returned to the dorm, I found out Jennie had arranged for me to have dinner with another parent since she already had plans. I graciously bowed out, returned to the motel, and had a good cry.
Two days earlier, as a part of freshman orientation at Washington University, I had stood on a stage before approximately three hundred parents who had come to hear my professional words of wisdom as a member of the Student Counseling Service. The topic was "Letting Go."
And now I had begun.
The process of "letting go" actually starts in the first years of life. As parents, we can remember the struggles of the early years, especially between the ages of 11/2 and 3, when our children seesawed back and forth between acts of independencea toddling strut accompanied by a "world is my oyster" smileand clinging, whining periods of hanging on. Although this separation process continues throughout our children's growing years, it is especially evident as they move through adolescence and begin to leave home, when we once again see their ambivalence acted out in puzzling ways. We were often more patient and understanding of the process when our children were small. We were also better informed. The "terrible twos" may not have been pleasant, but we all knew they were coming, and we knew they would end. Information and reassurance were readily available if we felt uncertain about our children's development or our roles as parents. But when we send our sons and daughters off to college, there are no Dr. Spocks to reassure us, no guidelines for moving through this time of transition.
Some parents don't see this as a time of transition at all. It is simply the end of childrearing for them and of childhood for their sons and daughters. "You're an adult now; start acting like one," they admonish. Others have trouble giving up their role. They still see themselves as necessary protectors and their sons and daughters as immature children rather than self-reliant young adults. "Don't you worry about it, dear. I'll call your dean and take care of it for you."
Most of us flounder somewhere in between. We send our children off with a mixture of anticipation and anxiety, a sense of loneliness and freedom, fantasy and reality. Our childrearing days are ending. Our children are launched. We anticipate dealing with our own reactions to their leavingtime on our hands, financial belt-tightening, a quiet housebut we are caught off guard by the continuing demands and concerns that we discover as each week and month goes by after the launching. As they struggle to be independent and separate once again, as in their toddler years, they venture forth with bravado and periods of newfound confidence and wisdom, only to retreat into times of anxiety and hanging on. They want Mom or Dad to be there when they want them. They call and pour out fears and hurts, hoping to be understood, or they withdraw into silence; advice and parental concerns become intrusions.
We shift gears constantly as we meet our offspring in an elusive dance of change. We find ourselves relentlessly retracing old patterns one week and discovering new ways of getting along the next. The temptation to tell our children how to be independent is a compelling one. The contradictory, but all too familiar, parental message is "It's about time you were grown up and on your own, so follow my advice." Translated, this painfully becomes "It's time for you to be independent, but I don't trust your judgment."
As our sons and daughters enter these college years, we have to come to terms with their strengths and their limitations. At the same time we realize that we too are at a watershed, entering into a new phase of our livesgrowing older. We may find ourselves taking a new look at our marriage or careerour own limitations. And so as they struggle with a turmoil of conflicting emotions about leaving, we often are flooded with conflicting feelings of our own about being left.