Boston is home to 64 colleges and universities. And over the next few weeks, the city’s streets will be choked with double-parked SUVs, vans and trucks as parents haul garbage bags of clothes, rolled-up rugs and particle board furniture into dorms and launch their child into college. They worry — as I did — about how that kid will fare. Will they find their people? Make it to graduation? Will they find a job after four years of staggering expense?
For the first time in 10 years, my partner, Peter, and I will not be part of that chaos. No U-Haul rentals or 5 a.m. bleary-eyed treks to the airport. My son, the youngest of our collective brood of five, graduated from college this year. Finally, after two decades of glue sticks, backpacks, shower caddies and self-adhesive hooks (that rarely stick), no one is going back to school.
Peter and I met when his youngest and my youngest were both in middle school, his other two kids were in high school and my eldest was sorting her next steps. I lived in Brookline, he in Newton. After years of dating, we found a house in the middle so our two youngest could continue attending their respective high schools. Those were not easy years to merge a family and I wasn’t at my best during the pull-your-hair-out frustration of parenting teens.
I simmered in judgment at my partner’s parenting style and felt the sting of criticism when he questioned mine. Peter sorted kids into: “communicates well” or “something’s wrong.” His kids told him everything about their lives. Mine hid behind closed doors. But every night, Peter cooked dinner and we all ate together as a family. Still, I fretted. About late nights, late assignments, social media and standardized tests.
“You’re too anxious,” Peter would say.
“I’m not anxious,” I replied. “I just want to be prepared for disaster.”
But a high school headmaster once said something that stuck with me: “They all find their way. Some of them just take longer to cook.” I held that hope close to my heart as I watched our kids navigate anxiety and dyslexia. Meanwhile, we endured years of light sleep punctuated by late-night calls for rescue, a drunken confrontation with law enforcement, stretches of paralyzing depression, and a heart-stopping brush with self-harm. We roller-coastered through gender fluidity and transitions. We survived tears and sprained ankles, first jobs and college applications. Both we and the kids made mistakes, fought, laughed, enjoyed small triumphs, took prom photos, celebrated and stumbled through those years together.
Then, one by one, they finished high school. And peeled away.
We drove to Logan airport as the sun peered over the gray sky, packed the cavernous back of the U-Haul with trembling bamboo plants and IKEA bookshelves hanging on for their lives; we mailed forgotten pictures of the Dali Lama and neon signs across the country (which, by the way, I do not recommend). We crossed our fingers when our eldest moved out of our basement bedroom to share an apartment with strangers.
Our kids explored many versions of education. One chose the vast school-o-polis that is Amherst Massachusetts. The next flew to an urban university – a trolley ride from steamy, vibrant New Orleans. Another found a campus tucked into the woods outside of Baltimore. One discovered that college wasn’t the right fit and got a design certificate instead. Another found their tribe an hour south in Providence. As parents we went from a constant state of hyper-awareness of our kids’ whereabouts – our antennae exquisitely attuned to their moods, activities and progress – into a blissful, ignorant void. I felt almost weightless with relief.
Of course, the pandemic stirred its own chaos. We witnessed classes attended from unmade beds, terms skipped and graduation ceremonies canceled. But one by one, all five eventually finished school on their own terms. And one by one, they have stepped into adulthood.
As parents we went from a state of hyper-awareness of our kids’ whereabouts – our antennae exquisitely attuned to their moods, activities and progress – into a blissful, ignorant void.
This spring, our youngest moved into their new, post-graduation apartment with the help of friends. Our phone never rang, we rented no SUV. When we visited, it looked as if they had lived there for years. The dishes were arranged in cupboards, a settee that they had made in woodshop class adorned the living room. We ate lunch together, shared stories and caught up. They walked us to our car and gave us each a squeeze.
“Thanks for coming,” they said, and then watched us pull away. They are making their new home. I’m proud of their independence. And yet, some nights I still lose sleep over their future. As a parent, I’ve learned that worry never completely fades away.
That headmaster was right. Each of our children has chosen a different path, moved at their own pace and, in the process, found themselves. And I guess that was to be expected, even if it wasn’t easy.
What I hadn’t expected was how much my universe would expand as our household shrank. I’ve been given windows into finance, sustainability marketing, philosophy, cinema and art. I feel like I’ve grown alongside them, even as they move farther away. And Peter and I are finally getting to know each other as a couple, not just as co-parents.
And in late August, as we jockey the clogged lanes along Comm Ave, hearing yells of “Hold that door!”, I want to send a message to each worried parent blinking back tears. I want to roll down my window and yell over the stacks of cardboard boxes, extra-long dorm linens and tangled fairy lights: “You’re doing a good job! They’re going to make it!”