Last year as I prepared to send my youngest child off to college I wrote this op-ed—with a box of tissues nearby. The piece ran in Newsday and I got several e-mails from parents sharing the pain of letting go. Somehow I survived and my daughter flourished. While it was difficult to send her off again this September, I did so with a lighter heart.
In a few weeks, thousands of parents will descend upon college dorms loaded with a year’s supply of Bed, Bath and Beyond paraphernalia, enough electronics to power a small city, and containers of clothes to cram into closets, under beds and over doors. That’s the easy part. The wrenching part comes when it’s time to get back into that now empty car, head home to an eerily quiet house, and suffer through withdrawal from professional parenting.
While Empty Nest Syndrome (ENS) probably hits hardest among those of us packing off the last child to college, other parents also experience the typical symptoms of depression, sadness, or grief, after dropping children off at college.
ENS was once thought to be suffered primarily by pre-feminist housewives. But baby boomers who combined careers and parenting also suffer from the syndrome. Perhaps it’s because we became so immersed in our children that we turned it into profession lasting from Lamaze through high school graduation. The books, the enrichment classes, the volunteer days at nursery school, the educational toys and trips, to say nothing of the soccer, football, lacrosse, basketball, and baseball practices, games and tournaments. My last child is a singing and dancing drama queen so there were the plays, recitals and concerts, and we attended every show, even dress rehearsals.
Professional parenting took on an especially manic pitch during my daughter’s high school years when news headlines shouted about the tough college admissions competition facing these teenaged Echo Baby Boomers. A decade ago I had tracked down Beanie Babies; for the last two years I spent countless hours plotting college admissions strategy.
I have survived sending off two older children: one son halfway across the country to play Division One lacrosse, and the other son to college followed by two tours as a Marine officer in Iraq. So I why should I be so upset? I know the drill: they leave, they e-mail occasionally when they need something, they call on Sunday nights, they even come back for a while.
Maybe my malaise weighs so heavy this time because it’s my last child, my only daughter, and almost three decades of hands-on parenting are coming to what seems like an abrupt end. I have been anticipating her college goodbye since the first day of high school. Initially I soothed myself with the thought that “we still have four years left,” then three and so on. The anxiety was dulled by the college admissions marathon that started with the sophomore PSATs, followed by prep courses, resume-building extra curriculars, college visits and applications. However when that big envelope from the admissions office finally arrived we both started crying: her with joy and me at the realization that I put all that effort into sending my youngest child away! Now I’m down to counting weeks and soon days.
I realized that my feelings were shared when I attended the elaborate orientation at her college and saw other parents with tissues and tears. I began to suspect these sessions were more to help parents let go rather than assist the students schedule classes. At one session, the head of the college counseling service suggested that the transition–for the parents, not the students–could take until Thanksgiving! On the way home it occurred to me that the next time we went to the college my daughter would not be traveling back with us. We were actually going to leave her at the campus. Thankfully I had a box of tissues in the car.
Like any good professional parent, I searched for books on ENS, and sure enough there were about a dozen titles. The bible, now in its fourth edition, is “Letting Go: A Parents’ Guide to Understanding the College Years,” which claims hundreds of thousands of readers over the last decade.
I skimmed the books for advice: I was supposed take joy in the fact I had given my daughter roots and now wings. I was advised to take up a new hobby like tango dancing with my husband and enjoy our uninterrupted time together, planning long-delayed romantic getaways (with a $50,000 college bill looming?). I was supposed to delight in the peace and quiet of home, the lower grocery bills, the ability to choose my own television shows (no MTV), and to sleep through the night without worry (I’ll still worry; I just won’t hear her come home anymore). Not to fear, one author noted, the pain of the loss will subside over time. Oh my, this was going to be worse than I expected.
I’ll be honest, I am happy to give up car pooling and making school lunches and straightening her bedroom in an attempt to uncover the floor. I have plenty of delayed projects to take up. A colleague asked what I planned to do with my newfound free time come September; I quickly answered, “Work more.” And that’s the truth. Still my eyes fill with tears at every back-to-school advertisement knowing that the school is hundreds of miles away.
My daughter seems somewhat bittersweet about leaving. However she recently brightened with an idea: I should get a new cell phone, one with a letter key pad. After all, spurred by her message one day that “school is on lockdown” I had quickly learned how to text.
“We’ll go to the phone store and pick out a new cell together,” she suggested, adding, “Then you can text whenever you want.” Leave it to a teenager to come up with a techy solution for Empty Nest Syndrome. I’ll try and hope the tears don’t rust the keyboard.