I always chuckle at Norman Mailer’s pithy depiction of masculine rivalry: “When two men stop in the street to say hello…one of them loses.” But it would not be difficult to extrapolate a bit and substitute “parents” for “men”. For mothers as well as fathers are constantly comparing themselves to other parents when it comes to how their children are doing, and there is no developmental phase during which this process is more highly-charged than during senior year and the attendant drama of the college applications and admissions process.
For many parents, the outcome of this process is the ultimate assessment of how they have performed as caregivers and how their children have repaid them for the sacrifices, efforts, and investments they have made over the years. Iconic items such as the college decal that is displayed on cars and the sweatshirt emblazoned with “My son/daughter goes to…” can function as the final report card, indicating what a family has (or has not) achieved.
But what I have noticed on numerous occasions in my practice is that the intensity of the college application process distracts family members from confronting the ultimate issue that is facing them at this juncture in their evolution—the feelings of loss and grief that accompany the departure of a child.
What we are often hesitant to acknowledge during the furor of mapping out life after high school is that leaving home entails considerable mourning on the part of both the high school senior as well as her parents. For the senior, leaving home means encountering the death of her childhood, and the many realizations associated with this death—these include coming to terms with the fact that her parents cannot perpetually protect her from pain and disappointment, that she is not the center of the universe, and that she is not invincible or immortal.
For the parents, a child’s senior year requires them to encounter the death of the phase of life when they were most important, most necessary. We are never more essential than when we are rearing our young—as that enterprise becomes condensed, parents become expendable, are nudged into the twilight of insignificance and forced to mourn the loss of their relevance. As Anna Freud wrote about the essential task of parenthood: “Your job is to be there to be left.”
Most of us are aware that where one attends college has precious little to do with the life that one ultimately leads. In addition, college matriculation is a fluid and reversible process—a young adult can, for example, withdraw, transfer, or perhaps take one or more gap years.
But the fundamental process that is irreversible is that the family must move on. Time only travels in one direction and no matter how successful or unsuccessful a college experience turns out to be—and wherever that experience takes place—it will not return parents and their children to the phase in their lives when they were, for better or worse, closer, more enjoined, more connected.
Call all you want, text all you want, videochat all you want, e-mail all you want—when a child leaves home, she is no longer your child. Mothers and fathers may valiantly battle this reality, but there is an inescapable developmental undertow that pulls the generations apart as children grow, abandon their parents, and prepare to take center stage in the world that will one day become their own.
So here is a little advice as your family enters the roiling white water of college-related decision-making. When you start to feel besieged with worry or fear about how this is going to play out, or about how disappointed you and/or your senior may be if s/he does not get into the college of his/her dreams, or about how tiresome it will be to listen to your fellow parents smugly brag about their own senior’s college plans, ask yourself the following questions:
Remember that there is no such thing as “the college of one’s dreams”—college is a reality, not a dream, and it will and should take on the texture of waking life, not dream life, rich with wonderful moments and harrowing ones, feelings of rightness and feelings of wrongness, a staunch belief at times that this was the best place possible and an equally staunch belief at times that this may have been the worst decision ever made.
You are entitled to be proud of your child if she was admitted to one of her first choices, and equally entitled to be disappointed if this is not the case. But it would be unwise and ill-advised to load all of your emotional eggs into that one basket. Because the reality is that your child is leaving home, and no matter where she heads off to, her leaving home means that she is leaving you behind.
The best bet for you—and for your child—is to remember that the process of college admissions is not a referendum on the kind of parent that you have been or the kind of individual that your teen will become. A more accurate appraisal of what you have accomplished is how fully you allow yourself and your family to close one chapter of family life in preparation for the co-authorship of the next one, and how gracefully you allow yourselves to experience the wide spectrum of emotions that are unshakeable accompaniments to the drama of growth, evolution and the extraordinary arc of human development.
With this objective in mind, and to go back to Mailer’s observation, we might consider the possibility that when two parents of college seniors stop on the street to say hello, both of them are “losing”, in the sense that they are in the midst of a significant “loss”. But in recognizing the magnitude of that loss and responding to it with love, compassion and courage, both of them—and their families—can win.