Like many parents saying goodbye to their college-bound offspring, I'm struggling a bit. "I think I missed the memo," one friend wrote after depositing her daughter at Columbia. "Dropping off your firstborn on their first day of college leaves you with a hole in your heart." Another compared her son moving out to the death of a dog: she can still smell him, still expects to see him when she comes home, still calls out to him without thinking -- then realizes he's gone. It's the presence of an absence we're feeling, or in my case, anticipating; my daughter leaves home at the end of the week.
At the risk of sounding mawkish, I want to give my daughter some powerful advice that will be useful in the months ahead when she's navigating the world on her own. To that end, I've been gathering pointers from my empty-nested peers, whose emotions run from bereft to worried to giddy.
Some offered practical suggestions. Annie from Andover, MA, who dropped off her second child a week ago, made a point of telling her son what she knows he already knows, but that she must hear herself say out loud one more time: Wear a condom. No means no. Bill from Atlanta told his Dartmouth-bound daughter that she's in college for one reason: to learn, and ultimately to get a job. I'd add a few practical tips of my own: College boys are pigs (sorry, sons), Hang up your wet towels, Get some exercise, Go to bed. And hammer out agreements with your roommate early, so you're not "sexiled" -- the appallingly rude practice of booting your roommate overnight in order to guarantee hook-up privacy. In short, Respect yourself and insist on it from others.
There's always a lot to warn them about. But who knew my list would include, "Never, ever toss a frozen turkey out a car window," an admonition I added after reading a story about teenagers who did just that, nearly killing a woman driving in another lane. When can you assume that they're mature enough to know that throwing poultry from a vehicle is dumb? How about dropping shopping carts off parking garages? Or swallowing 10 shots of grain alcohol at a frat party? The not-very-helpful omnibus guidance for every conceivable and inconceivable idiotic escapade is simple: Think first.
This is hardly life-affirming stuff, and a far cry from the inspirational messages embroidered on the Pottery Barn pillows that pop-up on dorm room beds: Live, Love, Laugh and Change the World. (How about we start by changing the sheets?) Look, living and loving are all good and well, but many older teenagers headed for quasi-independence probably has every intention to live (drink), love (hook up) and laugh (drink), and needs no further encouragement from Mom and Dad.
In the end, so much of what we tell our kids takes on the character of elevator musak or a swarm of mosquitoes: annoying background noise that has to be ignored or squashed to make life tolerable. Too many practical tips and cautionary tales, and before long, we become the never-seen squawking grown-ups from Charlie Brown, always reprimanding or threatening, rarely listening and barely heard.
So my dear first-born, what I truly want you to read and remember is this:
Anyone who seems cool and self-assured at the beginning of freshman year is faking it. Embrace your vulnerability and open yourself to others.
When in doubt, work. You can't go wrong by throwing yourself into your studies. When there's chaos all around -- your roommate has thrown up on your bed, you can't figure out how to navigate the library, no one remembers your name -- work will give you a sense of purpose.
Georgia O'Keeffe wrote, "To have a friend takes times." It might come as a shock after a week or so when you realize that you probably don't know anyone yet who genuinely cares about you. It's the people back home who understand your irrational aversion to beetles, your infuriating tendency to ignore texts and calls and your habit of leaving shoes, coats and cups all over the place -- and who love you anyway. In time, some of the people around you now will appreciate this about you, and love you for it, too. But you have to give it time.
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously advised his young daughter heading to camp not to worry about boys, public opinion, triumph or failure -- or, oddly, "Insects in general." I would add, don't worry about calamities. Subway bombs, car wrecks, kidnappings, brain tumors -- dreadful things happen, but you mustn't wallow in the potential for tragedy. In other words, don't borrow trouble.
We still have your back, even though we're not with you.
A wise and witty friend from Middlebury said it best in a graduation card she wrote to her daughter: "Be proud. (We are!) Be strong. Be forthright. Be fair. Remember always how much you are loved. Take chances. Heal the world. Be adventurous, but know you will always be welcomed home with open arms. Be smart. Be true. Be safe. Listen to your heart. Don't throw up."
[P.S. Attention, kids: if you're picking out a message-laden pillow for your parents, be sure to make it an age-appropriate one, like Where's the Advil? Or maybe, simply, Everything will be OK.)