In two weeks, our daughter will arrive home for Christmas with one college semester under her belt. What started with great anticipation and trepidation in late August has settled into a routine of classes, schoolwork, and social activities. She is making new friends, learning how to live on her own, and adjusting to her new environment.
As a parent I watch all this from afar, which has required adjustments on my part too. That’s why I chuckled with a sense of recognition when I read Susan Engel’s personal essay in the New York Times recently. Ms. Engel writes about how she assumed that when her three boys went away to college, her work would be done. Instead she found herself feeling helpless and frustrated when they encountered problems that are beyond her ability to fix, like finding love, choosing careers, financial difficulties, illnesses.
In a small way I experienced what Ms. Engel described when my daughter attempted to come home for fall break last month after super storm Sandy. Our area was without power and regular train service was suspended due to storm damage. Even though her college is only 30 miles away, we could not pick her up because New York City Mayor Bloomberg was only allowing high-occupancy vehicles to enter the city. So she had to take a bus, something she had never done before. The Port Authority bus terminal is a confusing and chaotic place where an unending stream of travelers and buses converge upon each other and then depart for different destinations. I worried about how she was going to find her way around and because I was not familiar with Port Authority, I couldn’t even advise her where to go. As a child of the sheltered suburbs, she rarely encountered anything more frenzied than the controlled chaos of school lunch periods, recess, and end-of-the-day dismissal.
After enduring long lines at the ticket counter and gate, she texted that she had waited on the wrong bus line. I felt momentary panic squeezing my insides as I envisioned her going to a wrong town. Impotently, I waited for an update.
In the end she arrived safely, having found and boarded the right bus, all without my assistance. It occurs to me that as her college career continues, this is how it will unfold – she will have to figure out her destination and how to reach it. As her parents, our instinct is to help her as much as we did when she was younger. But sometimes we won’t be able to do anything and as Ms. Engel observes, our children’s adult years require different parenting skills.
Something to get used to.