Off to College and Saying Goodbye

Paintings Reproductions David, Jacques -Louis The Farewell of  Telemachus and Eucharis

It is that time of year. Some kids are going to college for the first time. A difficult moment for all concerned.

If you are a parent, your child may have been spending much of the last year or two pushing you away; being disagreeable; wanting to spend more time alone; confiding in you less.

It could be adolescent rebellion in a fairly moderate form, but, more likely, it is his striving for independence; and his anticipation of the real break — the one that finds him living in a different state; both a state of mind and a State of the Union.

As most of us know, it usually feels better to be the one who ends a relationship first or enacts a change in it — separates, creates a distance — than to be on the receiving end of that action. But, whatever it is, it is tough for sure.

The farewells can be tearful and terrifying, mostly for parents. The kids have their anxieties too, but don’t want to betray them as openly as the elders do. The students’ brave front is as much to persuade themselves that everything will be fine outside the nest as to keep their ambivalence in check, lest they encourage mom and dad to show even more emotion and make the parting harder.

I remember spending a good portion of our drive back home from an off-to-college goodbye with tears in my eyes, having taken our eldest to the Champaign/Urbana campus of the University of Illinois. Within a few days we heard from her though. Sure enough, homesickness.

Letting go of your children is hard, as I’ve written elsewhere on this blog. You have to have faith that your offspring have learned something by age 18 and that they will survive, bruised but unbowed. Not much you can do anyway, unless you are prepared to keep them hostage in your basement forever.

They will return of course, but they won’t be the same. That too is a good, if  ambivalent thing, a sword that cuts both ways. As a parent, you’ll remember the cuddly and loving stage, the moment when you were everything to them and they couldn’t get enough of you. In trade, you get to see your children flourish (one hopes) as adults, a wondrous thing when you remember back to how little and helpless they once were.

But, be patient. The “full bloom” just might take some time and some struggle. Keep the faith.

Regardless, you do get more peace, quiet, and privacy as a bonus.

A new relationship, then — something different rather than better or worse.

The “saying goodbye” comes by degrees. At first, they return for summer vacation and holidays. Later, they will live away and see you less often. Such is life.

My wife and I kept a very old car for our daughters to use when they were home, even after both had graduated college and gone on to grad school. Finally, a minor accident rendered it beyond repair and we donated it to charity.

For a few days after the auto had been taken away, my wife and I both felt a little bit low. We talked about it. Of course, it wasn’t hard to figure out. The car was a symbol, something tied to the time they lived with us, and something that said they would be coming back. Now, with the car gone, we both had to face  that there was no coming back with the regularity of the past.

Their lives were elsewhere.

When I gave the toast at my eldest’s wedding, I told the following story:

I remember the day that we took Jorie to Champaign/Urbana to the Illini Towers dorm, to begin her college education at the University of Illinois. We thought we would be clever about it, so we woke up very early that Saturday morning and drove fast so that we would be among the first to get into the building and unloaded. But we were out foxed by several hundred people, who had gotten up earlier and driven faster and were already way ahead of us in line to use the couple of elevators and the small number of carts to get their child moved in.

It was a long, hot, late summer day. And as we stood in line  waiting, I had a feeling of familiarity, as if I had done this before. Of course, I had never moved Jorie into any new place, so I couldn’t easily figure it out.

As the morning changed to afternoon (and we were still in line), I thought back to the day that Jorie was born. At 1:00 AM, that is to say, in the dead of night, Jorie gave the signal and we were off to the hospital. And that too was a long day as we waited for the labor to progress. Finally, at 9:34 PM, over 20 hours later, Jorie arrived in this new world. And I realized that the long day of waiting for her to be born was what the long day of waiting at Illini Towers reminded me of.

The only difference was that on that day at the hospital we were waiting to say hello to her, and on the day at Illini Towers we were waiting to say goodbye.

Shakespeare was right.

“Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

But, life does go on.

The image above is The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis by Jacques-Louis David.

Letting Go of Your Children

One of the hardest things a parent has to do for his child’s well-being is “letting go.” The attachment between a parent and child, at its best, is profoundly intense and rewarding to both parties. But, at some point, earlier than most parents think, the tie must be loosened. There are at least two reasons for this.

The first involves the danger of overprotection. While the world is a harsh place at times, children who are not seriously disabled need to begin to obtain some mastery of that world. They will not do so if the parent hovers too closely, watches every move, makes every decision, and doesn’t permit the child to get a sense of accomplishment and independence, that is, to get a sense of their own mastery of the world.

Secondly, if the child is ultimately to break-free, the parent must prepare him and encourage him. Kids will make bad decisions; they will get hurt by life. All that is a part of growing up and, in fact, a part of life as an adult, too. If they are to succeed in life, attach to others outside the family (mate), produce children, and develop a personality that is different from that of either parent, they will profit from the permission and encouragement to do so.

There is no perfect guidebook for how to disengage–how to, little-by-little, give your child more freedom, less oversight. It is easier, of course, if the young one is reasonably outgoing, a good student, and doesn’t get into much trouble with authorities. But even with kids who are having difficulty, micro-management can create resentment and rebellion, while constant criticism can be depressing and efface the child’s shaky self-esteem. A parent needs to know which children need a heavy hand, which a light touch, when to praise, when to correct, and when to punish. No one can provide  precise direction to this in the abstract, because each child is different and each parent is different. That said, here are a few pitfalls to watch out for:

1. Don’t try to raise each of your children the same way. While this should be obvious, it rarely is. Some parents even brag: “I treated all my kids the same.” This is preposterous, but, even if you came close, you probably shouldn’t have. All children aren’t the same and therefore require the kind of individually tailored attention that works for them. Why would it make sense to raise an active child in the same way as a passive one, or an outgoing offspring just like an introspective little person? One size doesn’t fit all.

2. Don’t “own” your child’s life. He isn’t you. He needs to have his own ideas, not some Xeroxed version of what you think he should be. He ultimately needs to “own” his direction in life, meaning that the desire to do well in school and in other things needs to be his. If he only does his school work because he is required to, even when he is in high school, somehow the transfer of responsibility from you to him hasn’t been made. You’ve got about 15 years to accomplish that hand-off; after that, demands from parents to “do better” usually generate diminishing returns.

3. Don’t set unreasonable expectations. Most middle-class folks see their children, at least a little, as a reflection of themselves; someone to carry the family banner into the future. But, you can make yourself a little crazy by wanting great fortune and fame for your kids, and letting them know you will settle for nothing less. Harvard isn’t for everyone and there is no guarantee of a good life that comes with admission to Princeton, Northwestern, Yale, etc. If your child can make a living, find love in his life, behave honorably, and experience some measure of fulfillment, that just might be quite enough.

4. Don’t make your child feel guilty over leading his own life, not providing you with grandchildren, and not being as close to you as he was when he was little. He needs to break-free and take care of himself. He should (and probably will) want to have you in his life, but don’t be an anchor around his ankle.

5. Don’t live and die with every success and failure on your son or daughter’s path. Easier said than done, by the way. Learn to accept things as they are. Get some distance. Meditate. Get a life of your own. As a famous basketball coach once said, “If every game is a matter of life and death, you’re going to have a problem. You are going to die a lot.”

6. As your kids move into adulthood, don’t preach and do be careful about giving advice, especially if it hasn’t been requested. Let your children know that you are proud of them. Not because they became captains of industry, but because they are good, decent, and loving people. Give your grown kids support and encouragement. Enjoy them, don’t manage them.

7. Remember that they aren’t you, they won’t always do what you would do, what you think wise, believe what you believe to be true. They might belong to a different political party, root for a different baseball team (God forbid!), change religion or give up religion. They might marry someone you don’t completely fit with. Remind yourself that what is important is your child’s happiness and fulfillment and decency.

8. Take good care of yourself. Find a meaning in life that is not 100% about your adult children. Try to get there gradually, not on his or her 21st birthday.

If you are lucky, your children will turn out well, and be grateful for all you did, and for your wisdom in not “doing it all” for them forever. It’s quite an adventure for the concerned parent, and you will never stop being concerned. As Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “He that hath wife and children, hath given hostages to fortune…” But, with practice, you will sleep at night even on many of the nights that your adult child is having some bumps in the road.

When you look at her, fast asleep in her crib, all of that seems impossible and impossibly far away. But it can happen.

I’ve been there.

Last Words: Be Careful What You Say

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/25/Gertrude_Stein_1935-01-04.jpg/500px-Gertrude_Stein_1935-01-04.jpg

We tend to think of last words in terms of famous quotations. On her death-bed, Gertrude Stein (no relation to me) was asked, “What is the answer (to the meaning of life)?” Her matter of fact response was “What is the question?”

John Adams, our second President, alternately rival and friend of Thomas Jefferson, found some relief and gratitude in the belief that “Thomas Jefferson still survives” as he (Adams) lay dying. What he did not know in the pre-electronic year of 1826, was that Jefferson had in fact predeceased him by a few hours. Nor did either of them appear to reflect on the irony that these founding fathers both expired on July 4th.

On a less ironic note, students of American history will recall the story of Nathan Hale, captured and convicted of spying on the British during the Revolutionary War. “I only regret that I have but one life to give my country,” uttered Hale before his execution. More locally, those of us in Chicago might have heard of Giuseppe Zangara, an anarchist, who took aim at President Elect Franklin D. Roosevelt as he and the Mayor of Chicago shook hands in Miami’s Bayfront Park on February 15, 1933. The bullet hit Mayor Anton Cermak, who reportedly said to FDR, “I’m glad it was me instead of you.” Cermak died soon after and is memorialized to this day with a Chicago street that bears his name.

There are other kinds of last words, of course. The father of legendary musician and conductor Carlo Maria Giulini gathered his family around his death-bed to remind them that the word love, “amore,” should guide their thought and conduct throughout their lives. And one can only imagine how many times the word “love,” the words “I love you,” have been on the lips of both the dying and their survivors at the every end of earthly things. The religiously faithful have been heard to add, “See you on the other side.”

Last words of our parents tend to linger in the memory. We are often cautioned to part from loved ones on a high note, not a dissonant one, lest someone be left with the recollection and pain of a final disagreement, or the regret of injuring a loved one in what proves to be their last possible moment.

Two unfortunate examples from my clinical practice come to mind in this regard. One woman, whose mother had died many years before, had difficulty in shaking her mother’s last minute assertion, “You’re an ass, Jenny (not her real name).” It is not the only such example I can recall hearing from one or another of my patients. But the all-time cake-taker, the grand prize winner in an imaginary Hall of Shame of ill-timed and venomously expressed invective, are the words of a rebellious teenager to his severely taxed father.

A long history of mutual destructiveness typified their relationship. It seems that the pater familias was inept and self-interested in raising his son, and the son repaid his parent’s cruelty and clumsiness with as much drug use and petty crime as he could muster. Nor did it help that the family was under financial pressure and that the two adults of the home were a badly matched pair.

The father had only recently sustained a heart attack when the school reported to him and his wife that the son had once again been suspended. The “mother-of-all” shouting matches ensued between the middle-aged man and his first-born disappointment. And then, the last words: “You’re going to kill me.” And the reply, “You deserve to die.”

Not 24 hours later the words were realized. Deserved or not, the father was dead. And despite the fact that one could easily make a convincing rational argument that his death was not produced by his son’s words (or, at least, that the killing heart attack was waiting for whatever the next stressor was and would have happened very soon even without the argument as a trigger), it is easy to imagine that the sense of guilt would be lasting.

That said, I’m not opposed to standing up to people who have injured you, including parents. To say, “I know what you did (even if you deny it or justify it); and I won’t let you do it any more” is sometimes perfectly appropriate. That act of self-assertion can be therapeutic, even though it is usually not essential.

You can recover from childhood mistreatment without confronting the offender. Witness those individuals who do so when their abusive parents are already dead and therefore unavailable for any real-life discussion. What is essential, however, is to make certain that the mistreatment stops. This usually means that you, the now adult child, have to stop it: walk away, say “no,” or hang up the phone — whatever is required.

If, instead, you aim to change the offender, be prepared to be disappointed. Most won’t change or even admit that they did anything wrong. But if you wish to overcome your fear and master the situation, that mastery, at least, is possible.

Better, though, so much better to live as Giulini’s family lived, with love at the center of their being. I’m told that the old Italian expression for this is, “volersi bene” or “voler bene:” an untranslatable sentiment indicating that you cannot be happy without the happiness of the other. Yes, much better this way.

Perhaps its no mistake that in English and German the words for life and love are so close. Change the word “live” by one letter and you have “love.” In German, change the word “leben” (to live) by adding one letter and you have “lieben” (to love). Not just last words or Giulini’s father’s last words, but words to live (and love) by.

The 1935 photo of Gertrude Stein is the work of Carl Van Vechten, from the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division; sourced from Wikimedia Commons.