Much is written about the family ties that are loosened and re-woven, as parents see their children off to kindergarten, to middle school, to college. These rites of passage loom as large for the ones of us who are waving goodbye from the bus stop or the empty station wagon as for the ones moving on to the next grade, the new school, the new two-room-plus-common-room quad.
Kindergarten first days and college drop-offs get the bulk of the ink spilled over watching one’s babies march through the growing-up academic ranks. And yet, at every First Day along the way, these milestones require us to face the fact that our parenting days are slipping away, just as life keeps speeding up. One day it’s sippy cups and training pants, the next day it’s extra-long fitted bottom sheets and wi-fi setups. From a first day-care naptime to First Year Orientation, these commencements, over and over again, make emotions run predictably close to the surface. That, plus so many questions, all versions of: How did we get here, so soon?
And while the first college drop-off is significant, it occurs to me that precious little is written about launching a child to his last year of college. Which is where I am.
My baby is a college senior. Senior is still an acceptable term, I think. Junior and Sophomore too. Frosh is okay, but Freshman is sexist. First Year seems to be winning; see above. Freshwoman is silly. My beloved’s Men of Dartmouth is now Dear old Dartmouth, but there will always be 10,000 Men of Harvard in the football version, even as we all, sons and daughters implied, join my alma mater’s Jubilee Throng. File under, things have shifted since I was in college.
And while you’re at it, file under: How? Did? We? Get? Here? So? Soon?
For the record, here’s what happens when your baby goes off to his final year of college:
Okay, honestly, I can only guess what happens. Because while my beloved husband and I headed north to New Hampshire to wait out the final stretch of our home renovation flurry, our baby (My baby! He who loved ladybugs and spiders and wolves and polar bears, just ten minutes ago! ) undertook a final cleanup of our summer sublet, delivered keys to the appointed key-checker, and got his Big Guy older brother (My other baby! Who is now old enough to live and work downtown, and who vacationed in Italy with his girlfriend!) to drive his carload of stuff to his senior single, his last ever undergraduate dorm room. Apparently all that happened, successfully, without any supervision from me.
Yep, that’s it. I didn’t move him in, didn’t inspect his bed-making hospital corners, didn’t inquire about his possible need for a laundry basket, didn’t chat up the resident proctor. I don’t know what he’s taking for classes—that’s not how he rolls. I’m pretty sure he submitted a proposal for a thesis topic, but again, I’ll learn more about this on a strictly as-needed basis. Which means, I won’t see it until it’s got a grade on it. If then, and only maybe.
For those of you who can’t even fathom the prospect of being so deleted from your children’s day-to-day life, I say…well, honestly, I don’t know what to say. I don’t think the iron curtain that surrounds my younger son’s constitutional right to privacy is entirely normal. (He won’t let Mark Zuckerberg see his art on FB, either—the young man has only the slightest of cybersphere footprints. I take that as a sign that it’s Not Just Me.) Girls, I hear, tell all. Or some of them do. And there are certainly guys out there who are more forthcoming than my baby, including his older brother. With my Big Guy, I had to learn not to start with a nervous, “What’s up?” when he called from college, because in general, nothing was up. He’d just parked his car in a faraway lot and had time to chat while he walked back up the hill to dinner. Which was lucky for me–I loved those calls.
Mr. Rising Senior isn’t chatty. He happens to go to college really, really close to home (closer than his elementary school, true fact), which might explain the lack of phone calls—except that it doesn’t. You might think the geography would result in drop-ins for home-cooked dinners or the dreaded laundry drop-offs, but no. Sometimes, when we cross paths in our shared geography, he first looks furtively around to see if anyone he knows is watching, then picks me up and spins me around. Then I get a squeeze and a cheery good-bye, and off he goes. I always come out of these encounters disheveled and bemused. He might not be forthcoming about his academics or his extracurriculars or his love life (does he have one? How’s a mother to know?), and I can keep asking, “So, what’s new? How’s school?” and his replies will be amusing, if not informative—and that’s okay. The young man is doing just fine. He secretly still loves me. And he needs me to play by his rules of engagement.
Oh, dear. Treading on thin ice here, putting a photo in. At least it’s not his artwork. This is my senior, along with my eldest nephew and his baby girl, first of the next generation. All three share my mother’s maiden name in their names.
Those shifting boundaries around what’s his and what’s mine are at the nucleus of what constitutes the parenting continuum. Mr. Rising Senior’s boundaries are stiffer than most, but for every child, at every turn, they evolve. It’s not static, not ever. (“Don’t cut my toast! I can pour the milk! No, you may not read my college essays!”) The moment you think you have a firm grasp on the whole parenting piece, things shift. Activities that were well within my purview in the early days (picking out clothes and wallpapering the refrigerator with macaroni art projects, for example) are just not, not anymore. When nudged last year about perhaps asking some of his far-flung classmates to our house for Thanksgiving, his instant reply: “Take down all my art, and then we’ll see.” Which seemed so mean-spirited. But I came to understand where this reaction comes from: he wants to be judged by his peers for who he is now, not who he used to be. A dining room full of relatives who remember him from his early days, telling stories from years gone by…that would be a new circle of hell in his book.
Needless to say, my college guy would not have responded well, had Instagram been around when he was growing up. By which I mean, he wouldn’t have liked me posting photos of him, of his artwork, of his shadow, even. It was bad enough that I published essays on the Christian Science Monitor’s Home Forum pages, the subjects of which tiptoed into our family life from time to time. He fact-checked them all, and never let me off the hook for putting words in his mouth that hadn’t been there. Which made me acutely aware from the get-go that my stories were, in fact, his stories, too.
In the weeks since his school year began, we’ve met up a couple of times, mostly to gather some odds and ends that were in storage over the summer, shoes that went missing, computer monitors, that sort of thing. I’ve seen his room (which I never did see, freshman—whoops, first year) and I got to weigh in on which window the plant he bought three years ago, during freshman week (help! Frosh week?) might prefer. He rolled his eyes and told me he’d take my suggestion under advisement. Which is what he’s been doing now, for years. It just gets more acute, along with an awareness that this role of chief advisor is winding down. I’m bumping into emeritus-land here. He’s going to be all on his own, in a nanosecond.
So, if I’m aiming toward some existential parenting message here, I don’t for the life of me know what it might be. It’s not just that all happens so fast—it also changes on a dime. The angst over boozy high school parties morphs into the unexpected delight, three years (or was it just months?) later, when your child is the uber-responsible head bartender at your college reunion. (That really did happen.) The lying awake at night, wondering what time he’ll come tip-toeing up the stairs morphs into “Don’t wake me up,” before you can believe it. I remember chatting with a friend whose son was already in college, talking about the oddness of having him home for the summer, leaving the light on for him and turning in. You can do that? Have your head so much as hit the pillow before you know your child is home in bed, let alone asleep? That’s even possible? Trust me, it’s not just possible, it’s required.
There are such delights, being mother to these young men. The texts and links they send me out of the blue, the hugs they give so freely. They don’t need me to kiss their boo-boos, and I can’t run interference for them on much of anything these days. So many issues, so many concerns—now, either outgrown, or beyond my realm. They are who they are. I still bug them, mostly with complaints around things that seem to have forgotten, needling them with comments that start, “Don’t be that guy who…” but honestly, when the infractions are leaving a cream-cheese encrusted knife or toothpaste spatters in the sink, or returning the car without filling up the gas tank—we’re talking small potatoes. I’m done with the heavy lifting, and while I suspect I’ll always feel an urge to weigh in, I get it, that my work is essentially done here.
Here’s a message, for those who are aching as the years are just starting to spin by: it gets to be okay. The shift from pudgy play-doh fingers and toes to long-limbed man-children who wear shoes bigger than yours—it gets less extreme. The time seems right for them to be forging ahead, just about when you realize you’re ready to hand over the reins. This, please note, is coming from a mother who shed tears over The End of Onesies. That, and the sight of my children walking together on a city street, without a grownup. That, and the coup that resulted in my Big Guy taking over the front passenger seat, when he played the obvious trump card: he was taller than I am.
I wanted them to stay where they were. It was all going too fast. I remember longing for them to not outgrow their towhead blonde hair, their adorable snowsuits, their sassy seats, but now, I wouldn’t wish them–or me–back to that era. I see mothers in the grocery store check-out line with babies in front-packs, and I start to sway, that universal baby sway—but it’s an old twitchy, vestigial memory, a flicker from a time that is hard to realize happened. That was me?
Yes, it was. But it was another era. Here we are, now. Onward we go.
Miles is now a high school freshman. Freshperson? 9th grader.