The Grief of Taking a Child to College
My wife and I just dropped off our older daughter, Gillian, at college. Our younger daughter Ellie is still at home, so we’re not empty-nesters. Not yet. Still, the house seems too quiet, too placid, too full of echoes. Even the cat can sense that something’s happened. Last night, he peed on our leather couch.
We’ve spent years preparing Gillian for college. She’s developed good study habits. She can smell bad ideas, bad theology and bad arguments a mile away. She seems serious about her faith. She even has good instincts when it comes to friends.
Alas, I’ve spent no time preparing for this moment. You see, I’m a helicopter parent. For the most part, I’ve tried not to think about Gillian leaving the house and going to college. I felt dread when the thought did come to my mind, usually in the middle of the night. Even as we helped her prepare, I pretended that the moment would never come. Maybe the Lord would return.
I’ve always worried about my daughters. I like to have them nearby, where I can see or at least hear them.
This has not been a solo operation. In fact, I think my wife has really led the helicopter campaign. She’s coped with the change by staying busy. She poured over the details of Gillian’s class schedule, and made countless trips to Costco and Walmart to buy sheets, comforters, lamps, mirrors and other stuff I wouldn’t have thought of. We spent the last two days prepping Gillian’s dorm room, and left only when we could think of nothing else to do and it started to get awkward.
I’ve always worried about my daughters. I fear they’ll get bitten by a lyme-disease-carrying tick, fall prey to a false teacher, lose their faith, or get abducted. (Liam Neesen and the Taken trilogy get the blame for that one.)
I like to have them nearby where I can see or at least hear them. When they’re out, I can see just where they are with the trusty “Find My iPhone” app. I once thought about having microchips implanted under their skin — just for peace of mind. But not everyone saw the wisdom in that.
Don’t judge us too harshly. We lost our new born son when Gillian was two. That loss led us to redouble our protective efforts, which has involved a lot of hovering and risk assessments.
We recently found a picture from around that time that captured our basic method: helmets and protective pads for every tender spot.
Yes, that’s a pogo stick with training bars.
A Second Daughter
A year or so after this picture was taken, we adopted our younger daughter Ellie from China. She brought a whole new set of worries. We kept a pediatrician on call back in Seattle. It’s a good thing, because Ellie got sick while we were still in the People’s Republic. So we called the doctor in the middle of the night to plead for help. It turns out she wasn’t sick. We had misread the Chinese label on the formula bottle, and were feeding her double strength portions. Apparently it’s not supposed to have the consistency of warm pudding.
Even our best efforts at protection sometimes fell short. Ellie learned to crawl while we were still in our hotel in Guangzhou. The first thing she did was crawl off the edge of the bed and hit her nose on the tile floor. I’m surprised the authorities didn’t take her away from us, then and there. But we managed to get her back home, where we had more control over her surroundings.
There have been a couple of trips to emergency rooms, including a broken arm, some stitches, and swine flu. But for the most part, we’ve kept our girls safe from physical harm, night terrors, and boys.
We’ve Got It Better Than Most Parents
Now Gillian is in college. She’s living away from home. I still worry about her physical safety. But more than that, I fear that she will lose her way, or lose her faith. If you have a child in college, you know the fear.
In truth, I have far less reason to fear than most. Gillian is a student at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where I am on the faculty. She has easy access to Masses and prayer services throughout the day. My campus office is less than two hundred yards from her dorm room. I know many of the faculty she will be studying with. I know their integrity and commitment to the faith. And we live only an hour away.
The tone of the school is set by President John Garvey, who manages to exude both confidence and comfort. During orientation, he defended the founding mission of CUA, the only pontifical university in the U.S. He spoke to parents and students about the value of virtue, prayer and spiritual discipline. He even promoted temperance and chastity — by name. His words were a soothing balm for my wife and me, and no doubt to hundreds of other parents.
Still, I worry.
For now, I’m facing the truth all parents know but easily forget: It’s not about us.
Even if I could leave all my worries behind, though, I would still miss Gillian. I don’t like her empty bedroom. I miss hearing her play the piano and seeing her reading in the next room. I’ve always felt an emptiness when I’m out of town, or when one of my daughters is out of the house. Now Gillian’s absence, rather than her presence, will be the norm.
Yes, I will see her here and there throughout the semester. But I can tell that we’ve crossed a threshold. A chapter of our lives has ended. And it’s not one I wanted to end.
Thank God, we still have Ellie at home. She’s already concerned that we will hug her and kiss her even more than we did before. This is not an idle worry.
Stewards, Not Owners
Friends say that the grief will pass. But for now, I’m facing the truth all parents know but easily forget: It’s not about us. God gives us children as stewards, not owners. We do what we can to love them, protect them, and prepare them for life. But, at some point, we must quit hovering over them. We must let them leave the nest so they have a chance to fly.
Still, I can see where Gillian is with that app on my iPhone. Thank God for technology.
Jay Richards is the Executive Editor of The Stream and an Assistant Research Professor in the Busch School of Business and Economics at the Catholic University of America. Follow him on Twitter.