Tuesday, August 24, 2010

"Velcro Parents" or Anticipating Loss: Why Parents Hate When Kids Leave Home

Could it be coincidence that my husband and I tearfully watched our youngest child pass through the airport metal detector heading off for a year's post-high school study abroad yesterday, and today the New York Times has a front-page story about parents letting go of their college freshman children?

Apparently, we aren't the only moms and dads ruing the separation, as the article snidely chides "Velcro parents" and quotes the Grinnell College VP of Student Affairs deriding "the evolution of overinvolvement in our students' lives."  This know-it-all, Houston Dougharty, adds, "These are the baby-on-board parents...they do a lot of living vicariously..."

Well, Mr. Dougherty, those yellow "Baby on Board" suction car-window signs were way passe when today's freshmen, born in 1992, came along.  And Boomer parents didn't need to live vicariously, having been-there, done-that, with free love, drugs, women's lib, protest marches and minority pride.  Maybe you could say that we were used to being in the limelight, and hate to give it up; maybe you could say we never grew up ourselves.  But you'd be only part-right.

Parents today are no different from other generations, caring so much about their kids they want to be sure they're safe and secure.  Selecting colleges from a national field is a fairly recent phenomenon, and competition has ramped up significantly over the last few years, forcing many more kids to attend distant second and third choices.

In previous generations, fewer high school grads went to college, fewer went away for school; and far fewer of the parents of children going off to college had been through it themselves.  With Boomers the first cohort programmed for universities, they become the largest parental cohort to anticipate potential issues in their kids' college acclimations.

A July report from the College Board laments that the US has slipped from being the world's leader in college graduates--but a NYTimes piece on it notes that 70% of high school grads enroll in college, and nearly 60% of the ones who attend a four-year school graduate within 6 years.  While Pres. Obama and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations think that's abysmal enough to commit tax and Foundation money to increasing those figures, to my mind, our nation of many immigrants and non-college grad success stories (Bill Gates comes to mind), is perhaps too obsessed with perpetuating formal academics as the standard for achievement.

Until American parents concur with me, they'll be there with stuffed minivans, moving desk lamps, cube-shaped fridges and printers into their kids' dorm rooms.  They'll phone and text and worry and yes, shed lots of tears.

My husband and I dreaded the departure of our son, and after he was gone, we sat together on our living room sofa, masochistically listening to William Walton's "Touch her Soft Lips and Part," blubbering.  Earlier, Dionne Warwick's "One less bell to answer, one less egg to fry" was in my husband's mind; I kept singing the Beatles' "She's leaving home, bye bye..."  Then, while dumping my son's strewn clothes into the laundry, and returning his pile of Archie comics to his bookshelf, I realized the floor and family room would stay that way--uncomfortably clean.  My car will now be available to me 24/7; I won't have to buy two gallons of milk every week, or cook pounds of pasta.

Nor will I hear him playing his ukulele and singing, watch him bounding in the front door with an energetic "hi, Mom, I'm hungry!" or encounter him lying on the couch, laptop balanced on his belly, laughing at some College Humor video.

Why do parents hate to separate from their kids?  And why have colleges created ceremonies to signal parents to leave?  Because parents hurt emotionally from the loss of their kids' physical presence in their homes--a presence that for 18 years has brought joy, connection and the confidence that the offspring in whom they've invested their very hearts, are safe and well.  They don't want the era of parenthood to end, or the completeness and dynamic of their family to be torn asunder.  Parents' identities and schedules and sense of balance are all related to the cohesiveness of their families, and when one integral component of that, the new college freshman, departs, the world is askew.

My son is across the globe, now crowded with five never-met-before guys in a tiny dorm room, sharing a bathroom described as "horrible."  He's in a distant country that's surrounded by hostile forces, under the supervision of adults we assume are competent and caring.

Me?  I've got one less man to pick up after. And enough peace and quiet to remind me what I'm missing.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for putting our feelings into such effective words. I was lucky. I had grandchildren before my last one left the nest. That helped ease the ache. I guess no one wants to convince younger mothers to have more children, but so many women, deep in their hearts, as that last child walks through their door and out into the big, wide world, wish they had made different choices when they were younger. Children are our future in so many different ways.