My generation of parents obsessed about their children's education, from "What to Expect when You're Expecting" through "A is for Admissions." We have carefully choreographed virtually every stage of childhood. Unsatisfied with unstructured play, we created the concept of "play dates" to make sure the kids were properly socialized. Our children listened to music in utero; once born, the mobiles over their cribs were specially designed to catch their incompletely formed eyes.
We drove to a seemingly endless stream of practice rehearsals and travel team matches in unheard-of locations. We marched them to voice lessons, after-school dance and tutoring - not to mention the educational psychologist for the assessment of learning style differences. Our efforts have earned us such sobriquets as "helicopter parents," for those surveilling every moment from above, and "lawn mower parents," for those paving the way. (Those are among the printable phrases).
All of these things were done pursuing a common goal: preparing them for college. In tens of thousands of American homes during the last two weeks of August and the first week of September, households are marked by a sudden change: One fewer plate at the dinner table, one fewer pair of shoes in the hallway, and countless other marks of the absence of a young adult who has now gone off to college.
This is as it should be: Young adults need to move on; the bond of parent and child needs to be stretched and shaped in a new way. It is bittersweet, but the alternative is worse - your son or daughter spending his or her late teens and early 20s in the basement watching movies or playing video games.
When my family and I said goodbye to our son at the airport a couple weeks ago, it occurred to me, amid the hugging and crying, that despite all of our preparation for this stage of child-rearing - the books, magazine articles and endless college chatter with other parents - there is little that prepares a parent for the expected-yet-sudden loss of a child going to college. It is a blunt, sad moment for families, and especially parents, but it is burnished by a sense of pride and hopeful expectation for the child's success, of a job well-done.
As I was considering my own heavy heart, missing the shuffle of my son's feet down the stairs Saturday morning, it struck me that my loss, and indeed my generation's loss, of its children to college pales in comparison to the worry and loss of generations of parents prior to mine. Ninety-two years ago, the first wave of young Americans landed as the U.S. Expeditionary Forces lent aid to France, whose own army was in disarray. Europe was in collapse. Seventy years ago, on Sept. 1, 1939, the Nazi Army invaded Poland and, shortly thereafter, launched airstrikes, plunging Europe - and later the United States - into World War II. In August 1964, the events that precipitated the Vietnam War occurred.
Those generations of parents endured an emptiness far greater than mine. Indeed, they had serious doubts as to whether their children would return. They knew that their children's fears would be deeper, even shattering; unlike the apprehensions that come with meeting a roommate or living in a new city, their 18-year-olds faced violence, terror and possible death. No book, teacher or coach could have prepared them for the anxiety and helplessness that they faced.
As I look at my situation in this light, I recognize how comparatively easy my generation of college parents has it, particularly compared with parents who pack their sons and daughters off to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. My loneliness, my fear and anxiety are, frankly, puny.
So I will put my sense of loss in perspective: My son is in a safe place, in a bright and civil city with like-minded students on a sunny, Midwest campus. His battles will be intellectual and social. While I have urged him to take risks and get out of his comfort zone, the sorts of risks he will likely take will not endanger him in the way that millions of young lives have been endangered by wars, past and present.
Our house will be quieter, with less-lively dinners and fewer loads of laundry. But I will rest easier, thankful for the sacrifice of young men and women who preceded my son and the generations of parents who endured (and continue to endure) true fear and true sacrifice so that my son can study in peace.
Stephen B. Awalt is an attorney in Baltimore. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org