Colleges are increasingly feeling the need to gently nudge parents of incoming freshman to take their leave of the campus, lest the older generation take up residence more permanently there, the better to breathe down the necks of their offspring.
Freshman orientations at many colleges now often include a schedule that specifically mentions that the rest of the activities are for students only. Some have even instituted staged and formalized ceremonial leave-takings.
It seems that the current crop of parents are so heavily involved with their children that it’s hard to say goodbye. Years of arranging playdates and chauffeuring and tutoring for college boards create a situation in which going away to college looms almost as large an empty nest watershed in parents’ lives as the subsequent marriage of their offspring eventually does.
Of course, if the economy continues on its current course, they may see their grown-up children again in four years, up close and personal, as they move back home with mom and dad (or mom or dad, or mom and mom, or dad and dad, or mom and stepdad, or dad and stepmom, or…you get the idea) in order to save money.
But for the parents of college freshman, that prospect seems far away. What’s real right now is the wrenching goodbye that looms large and closer. Family therapists refer to it as “launching,” and know that it can be a huge turning point for parents who find it hard to let go.
And, lest you think I’m insufficiently sympathetic, let me just say that I found it a hard rite of passage, too—both as a seventeen-year-old college freshman, and as an (age-undisclosed) parent of an eighteen-year-old college freshman. The first occasion left me standing in a virtually empty dorm room, facing a roommate who was a total stranger, and with a sinking, empty feeling, knowing almost no one at the college I had chosen seemingly at random, in a far-off town in a far-off state. I made friends soon enough, but the memory of that day has never left me.
Nor have I forgotten saying goodbye to my own wonderful son (and only child) on a beautiful sunny afternoon, standing on the campus of another university, in another time and place. That leave-taking also coincided with the end of my long marriage—and both my husband and I knew it, adding to the poignancy.
There were no ceremonies except hugs, and then the turning and walking away, knowing that now we needed to trust that all the love and care we’d placed in our son would bear fruit once he was on his own.
And you know what? So far, it has. But the tears we shed that day (and tried to hide) were not for him; they were for us.