The University of Chicago cleverly cloaks the moment parents let go of their freshman in “tradition.” New student orientation week begins with a move-in day, followed by a gathering of freshmen and their parents in the chapel for a lighthearted but meaningful welcome. Bagpipers—seriously, bagpipers!—then lead a procession of parents and students to Hull Gate, also known as “the gate of tears.”
Perhaps you can see where this is going?
Several years ago, I was one of the parents giving the hugs and goodbyes on one side of the gate, through which parents were forbidden to pass. Beyond it, upperclassmen stood cheering the entering class while we parents mopped our eyes and found our way to a reception with some swanky college administrators we might have loved to meet any other day.
At the reception, we were asked not to contact our children for the remainder of the week.
Or maybe that was at the gathering in the chapel. Maybe it was forewarned in the scads of college-bound materials that blur in a memory that holds, instead, to the high school poker gang gathered in my dining room, the physics catapult that wouldn’t launch despite a team bound for Stanford, MIT, Chicago and Boalt, the last late-night talks with my son.
Whatever. It came as a shock to me. But a good shock, in retrospect, and maybe even at the time. The bandage was ripped off. If I had any urge to be a helicopter mom or my husband a drone dad, my son’s school was making it clear: it was time for all good parents to go leave their freshmen children in autonomous mode.
We spend so much of our time and emotional energy on our children that it’s hard to imagine letting go. But parenting is a job that, if we do it well, by definition obsoletes us. Sure, our children may crash against the walls of introductory architecture or multivariable calculus, but that’s rarer than we fear, and we won’t know if we don’t let them go. More importantly, neither will they.
Meg Waite Clayton is a novelist living on the Peninsula.