The Drop-Off

Kids grow up too fast. Like every cliché, this one’s worn to the nub, but it’s also true—although it can take life slapping you like a newborn sometimes to realize it.

Eleven years ago this fall, my wife and I took our daughter, Danielle, to college for the first time. That same week, in case this wasn’t jarring enough, we left our eight-month-old son, Steven, at his first day care. It felt like driving over speed bumps. 

Are we ready? Are they? Do we have any idea what we’re doing? It wasn’t the first time we’d ask, or close to the last.

Sending your kid away to college after eighteen years is a Rubicon, whether “away” means across town, state, or country. And despite months—years—of SATs, applications, and financial brow-furrowing, it still takes both sides by surprise. Maybe every large transition does. The best you can do, probably, is prepare to be unprepared.

The night we dropped her off, Danielle was invited to a party. She said, “Maybe. I’ll see if I can go,” before realizing, as she said the other day, “there was no Mom and Dad to get permission from anymore.” (I told her she could have phrased it less darkly.) At the party she grew apprehensive around 10:00 p.m. as curfew loomed—and then vanished the same way. Habits die hard, even ones you’ve been chafing at for years.

Losing limitations is scary, but also exhilarating, and necessary if you want to grow. All of which sounds good as a Hallmark sentiment, but it is harder to reconcile when it’s your kid on the loose. And let’s face it, we head to college at a time when we’re drawn to the strange and reckless, trying on new skins like party clothes—girls and boys, as you’ll know if you’ve parented both, or if you’ve been alive and eighteen and either.

Part of the project that autumn day in 2003 (an August day actually; September start-ups having gone the way of rotary phones) was to be excited for our daughter, and proud. And we were. Also apprehensive, which we tried to hide, thinking she didn’t need our help with that. Another part, classically, is the delivery of stirring words of wisdom, but Danielle says she doesn’t recall any speeches, so I must have resisted my natural tendency to mount the podium. Or, just as likely, she was too busy picking up keys and dodging U-Hauls to listen.

One difference between day care and college is that we knew Steven was perfectly safe in his soft room with trained caretakers, whereas all of us remember college—however tragically distant from it we must seem to our children—and safety may not be the first descriptor that comes to mind. The sense of dislocation is much the same, though, whether your fledgling is pre-toddler or pre-adult.

A website devoted to easing parents’ anxiety claims that it’s “typical to feel a mixture of pride, panic, and grief when letting go of someone [you] used to diaper.” Fair enough. Another, also well-intentioned, gets it wrong: “You’ve taught her how to be an adult! Congratulations!” But . . . you don’t know that yet, do you? Maybe she wasn’t listening then either. Maybe the advice was crummy.

My wife is as good a mother as they come, but she dreamed that week that she’d forgotten to feed Steven or to teach basic cooking skills to Danielle, whom she envisioned gnawing raw chicken in her room. You can’t help but worry. Food featured in the non-dream drop-off too. We bought our newly independent daughter a few groceries—this wasn’t boot camp, after all—but got the bags mixed up and inadvertently left her with baby food. Paging the irony police. That evening’s phone call began on a quizzical note.

One of Danielle’s suitemates had what we would now call a helicopter parent, a mother who lined up soup cans in the pantry, unpacked underwear, did everything but hang paintings. And then stayed the night. Whereas we incline toward the other end of the scale, by experience as well as temperament. I had station wagon parents. They helped me with my bulky stereo and world-class T-shirt collection, gave me bear hugs, and drove off. (My twin brother was moving the same day, a hundred miles west: same speed bumps, different generation.)

I write this sentence in the Indianapolis airport, returning from a visit to my eighty-six-year-old mother, who is facing transitions of her own. More of Hamlet’s “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” In a sense, we’re always waving good-bye. She and my dad did the college drop-off four times, and I asked her if it ever got easier. “Kids always think adults know what they’re doing,” she said. “Then at some point you realize your parents are making it up as they go. And so did their parents.” I’m fairly certain that was a no.

In a line often attributed to Emerson, Henry Stanley Haskins once wrote, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” I don’t know whether Haskins was a father, but I know one way to discover this is to go to college. Another is to watch your new freshman grow small in the rearview mirror, waving.   

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