05/20/2013 02:43 pm ET Updated Jul 20, 2013

Mother of the Grad Blues

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When my daughter smiles at me from the stage before she collects her college diploma, all I can see through my tears is her toothless grin at preschool graduation. She's had so many graduations since then -- elementary school in pigtails, middle school in braces, and high school with hair curling down her back -- that I thought I'd be prepared. But it's not just pride I feel for my firstborn. It's panic.

Like many graduating in this tough job market, she knows the odds are against her. Over Christmas, she described friends a year ahead who are struggling, and admitted that she was grateful for the shelter of school. How ironic that her generation was raised on self-esteem. When her young basketball team placed last in the league, the girls got trophies for participation. When she played violin in the 5th grade orchestra, classmates took turns at first chair. When she took up fencing and learned that college scouts were visiting, she quit. She had no interest in competition. Yet, in the current job market, she will have to compete for every interview, every internship, every barista opening at Starbucks. She told me that she expects to have to intern for free for up to a year, because the best opportunities may come at a cost. Unfortunately, the cost will be mine.

With her college fund depleted, my expenses will rise. Call it the extended parenthood plan.

My friend's son, who graduated last year with a prestigious liberal arts degree, moved back to the safe haven of home. Like many of the so-called boomerang generation, he has his old room full of trophies, a private bathroom and a full refrigerator. Some might wonder why he would ever want to leave, but after four years away, he values his independence. So does his mother. Just as she anticipated the funds to finally redecorate her empty nest, she has another mouth to feed. And forget the image of the lazy grad who lies on the couch all day. He spent a year patching together internships and minimum wage jobs before deciding to go back to school. Even with student loans and a part-time job, it will take months before he can save enough money to move out.

Just as the Baby Boomer generation is downsizing, whether by loss of jobs or by the chance to start a second act, our children need us more. According to the New York Times, young adults have the highest rate of unemployment. Thanks to the recession, many are homeless. College graduates have an advantage in the long run, but fewer of their parents can welcome them home now. And not just for financial reasons.

My daughter has no 'home' to come home to. While I sacrificed to hold on to our house after getting divorced so my girls could keep their childhood rooms, I counted down the years to freedom. I applied for a passport and eyed apartments by the beach. When both were out of high school, a For Sale sign was staked in our yard. Instead of preserving my daughter's room like a shrine, I packed up her baby clothes and Harry Potter books and put them in storage. Then I remarried and moved. After shaping my life around my children for so many years, I thought I was done.

Don't get me wrong, I'm as sentimental as can be. Photographs adorn my walls, the girls' faces gaze up from beneath my glass desktop, and every ornament they ever made comes out of the cupboard at Christmas. I count down the days for my daughter's visits, but if she comes home for good, I have only a guest room to offer. My husband adores her, but he never expected another roommate. Neither did she. And I feel awful about it, as if I am abandoning her. If only I'd provided her with the traditional two parents living in her childhood home, a place where she can come and go and one day bring her own children to visit. Or is that tradition long gone, replaced by wishful thinking?

My experience was the exact opposite of hers. When I left Ohio for college in California, I never looked back. After spending childhood summers riding bikes until the sun went down, independence was easy. Within months of my graduation, I had a job with health insurance and enough pay to share an apartment in a decent neighborhood. I called home every couple of weeks -- or when my car broke down.

Now, our kids are crippled by our connection. We give them a cell phone for safety, but since we pay the bills, we expect them to keep in touch so that we don't worry. I think it makes us worry more. Helicopter parents may have technology to blame. My friend with triplets in different colleges across the country knows when they have exams, when they get sick and when they have boyfriend troubles. This generation has grown up with more -- more comforts at home, more dorms with cleaning service, more attachment via the umbilical cord of the Internet. This allows for a closer relationship than the ones we had. Yet, it also makes it harder for them to spread their wings... and for us to set them free.

My daughter toys with the tassel on her mortar board, and I wonder if she envisions a big graduation gift: a trip to Europe, or a gently-used car. All I brought today is a bouquet of daisies. The fact that I know it's her favorite flower is strangely comforting. I realize she will need clothes for interviewing, at least a blazer and new shoes. Dress for the job you want, I will remind her. When she turns to scan the crowd, I wonder if she has plans after dinner tonight. I wonder if she has plans for tomorrow, or next week. I wonder if she is happy or scared, or both. I wonder if she is looking for me.

My daughter's name rings out and I want her to turn around and go back, back to her youth where I can protect her. Perhaps I didn't prepare her enough, or guide her enough, or provide a good enough example. When she loved horses, I should have insisted she take lessons instead of just braiding their manes. When the high school newspaper advisor groomed her to be the next editor, I shouldn't have let her resign. If only I had convinced her to go to a traditional university with the safety net of a sorority and football on Saturday afternoons. I wish she'd enjoyed four years of fun before facing an insecure future.

My daughter takes a tentative step, still looking at the audience. I wave the flowers until her mouth spreads into a smile. When she waves back, I see the confidence in her cupped hand. She is graduating from a university with classes taught by professionals in the field. Instead of late nights decorating homecoming floats, she learned portfolio presentation and posted an online resume of interactive projects that I only pretend to understand. And I realize that has made choices that will serve her well. She walks across the stage with her head held high. She knows that I am here, that I will always be here. And so will my checkbook.

Author of What A Mother Knows
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