Letting Go: A dad sends his first-born off to college
By Timothy Harper
It’s the little things the kids are going to remember, my wife Nancy tells me. Sure, Lizzie and Jonny will have fond memories of the great trips we’ve taken over the years: Egypt, France, the Virgin Islands, driving across America and back … And no doubt they’ll recall life benchmarks such as learning to drive, or the time the dog bit the mailman, or the year Jonny kept getting into trouble with water balloons.
But Nancy believes that when the kids are adults and they think back on growing up with us, they’ll think of all those family dinners, sitting down at the table together almost every evening and starting the meal by clinking glasses and saying “Cheers.”
We’ve been talking about this because Lizzie, 18, is going away to college at the end of this month. When people ask if we’re getting ready, I say, “I’m dreading it.” For the next three years—Jonny is starting his sophomore year in high school—most of our meals are going to start with three glasses clinking, not four. For a long time I told myself that I would miss Lizzie because she’s such a great kid. But now I realize there’s more to it. What I’m really dreading is the start of the breakup of our little family. The four of us have always been close, and being part of this family has been, by far, life’s most enjoyable and enriching experience.
Yes, it’s exciting for Lizzie to go off to school. Sure, I’m happy she got into her first choice: Oberlin College. And, of course, separation is a natural part of growing up. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. Some other parents tell me they never have family discussions about the first kid’s leaving for college. I can’t imagine that. We have been talking about it a lot.
Last spring, Lizzie wondered if this would be the last time she colored Easter eggs at home. Jonny frets about how many of her household chores will be dumped on him come September. Nancy has been studying calendars to see when the four of us can take a vacation together next year.
We’ve also tried to figure out how we—me, particularly—can understand and cope with the changes that are coming. A few months ago, Nancy and I went to a discussion on the theme, “Separating From Our Seniors.” The talk was led by Susan Lynaugh, a local psychologist whose sons are both in college. She noted that parents sometimes have difficulty dealing with the fact that their kids don’t need them as much. “They are living in the future,” Lynaugh said, “and we’re not the future anymore.”
Ouch. We still need Lizzie, and not just because she gives her mother fashion advice or drives her brother around or does a better job of mowing the lawn than the rest of us. But she doesn’t need us as much. We want to give advice, and sometimes we can’t help ourselves, even if it is unwanted or unnecessary.
Sometimes our advice is filtered through our own memories of college. We don’t tell Lizzie everything, of course. She listens, or pretends to, politely as we talk about handling money, eating right, getting enough sleep and exercise, and balancing school and her social life. I’m confident she’d rather contemplate what clothes to pack and how she’s going to decorate her dorm room.
One of our ongoing conversations is about how college presents the opportunity for freshmen to reinvent themselves, to try out new ideas and see themselves differently. Lizzie participates in these conversations probably because she sees their benefit for us. I should be thinking about reinventing myself as the father not of little kids but of grown-ups.
One thing we haven’t talked about with Lizzie is what it’s going to be like that day late this month when we drop her off at college, say goodbye and drive away. I’ve heard of kids who lose something at just that moment or need something from the store as an excuse to keep their parents from leaving. Some cry. I’ve heard many more parents report that their kids can’t wait for them to leave. They barely say thanks for the ride. I suspect Lizzie will be somewhere in between. I can’t—or won’t—imagine how I’ll react.
After we drive away, what then? Our relationship with Lizzie will be different, and we’re going to have to manage the change through phone calls, e-mails and perhaps even occasional letters. (For Lizzie, I may even break my longstanding refusal to use instant-messaging.) Karen Levin Coburn and Madge Lawrence Treeger, academics who have researched how the parent-child relationship changes in college, say parents should welcome the opportunity for the start of a new, more mature connection with their children.
Easy to say, but there’s not much choice. Coburn and Treeger say there are things I should and should not do when Lizzie calls with problems in those first weeks of college. I shouldn’t say, “I told you so.” I shouldn’t get involved by going to college administrators. I shouldn’t blame her for her problems, but neither should I agree that everything that goes wrong is someone else’s fault.
“The most helpful parents are those who listen, acknowledge their child’s feelings and allow him or her to generate some options,” Coburn and Treeger observe in their book Letting Go: A Parents’ Guide to Understanding the College Years. I know it will be difficult for me not to give advice, offer solutions or, worst of all, tell Lizzie what I would do in her shoes. I retain the right to give Lizzie advice. But she has the right to reject it.
So how we will spend our last evening together later this month? I fantasize that the four of us will squeeze onto the couch together and watch a favorite old movie. Maybe “Dirty Dancing.” That’s rubbish, of course. Lizzie is going to be out saying goodbye to her friends, Nancy and I will be racing around getting ready to leave early in the morning, and Jonny will be trying to stay out of our way.
So now, facing the imminent prospect of taping up the last box and loading up the car for that long drive from New Jersey to Ohio, I’m resolved to try to offer support in whatever way Lizzie needs it during her last days at home, and when we say goodbye, and after, when she calls or e-mails or comes home to visit.
This is not an end but a beginning, and I’m resolved to be a good freshman dad—even if I have to fake it sometimes.
Timothy Harper is a journalist, author and editorial/publishing consultant. He and his daughter Elizabeth are writing a book, Getting Published for Teens, which will be published by St. Martin’s Press in 2005