News bulletin to Michael Gerson's firstborn son, my firstborn granddaughter, and the maybe 3 million other kids starting college this year: Your parents will be OK!
Eventually, the cosmologists assure us, our sun and all suns will consume their fuel, violently explode and then become cold and dark. Matter itself will evaporate into the void and the universe will become desolate for the rest of time.
This was the general drift of my thoughts as my wife and I dropped off my eldest son as a freshman at college. I put on my best face. But it is the worst thing that time has done to me so far.
"Yeah," said my son-in-law, whose daughter leaves for college tomorrow. "That's basically what I've been thinking for a few months."
He's not alone — the article, "Saying goodbye to my child, the youngster," is all over Facebook. Assuming there are still teenagers who use Facebook, no doubt many of them have read it too.
Some of those college-bound teens may be concerned for their parents' sanity.
Kids, it's OK to relax. Your parents are probably normal.
Like you, they are facing a huge transition. For somewhere between 16 and 30 years, their number-one job — whatever else they did for a living — was to keep you safe, fed, clothed, educated, and civilized. If you're an only child or the baby of the family, they are now feeling jobless. Even if you have younger siblings, they are suddenly facing the reality that their job is winding down.
To say this another way: while a wonderful chapter in your life is about to begin, a wonderful chapter in theirs is about to end.
Does it seem weird that you feel excited while they feel morose? Well, endings are harder than beginnings. And it's usually easier to leave than to be left. You will miss your family, of course. You may even have moments of homesickness. But most of the time you'll be so busy doing new things that you won't have time for nostalgia. Your parents, by contrast, will run into reminders of your absence everywhere they turn. Your room will be unnaturally clean. The house will feel as quiet as a tomb. Your place at the table will be empty.
Your parents know this, and are full of dread. So be kind to them. Hug them. Wait patiently for them to finish crying. But don't even for one moment feel guilty for leaving. Remember that they cried when you went to kindergarten too, yet they've never regretted sending you.
See, in their calmer moments, they are really thrilled that you're going to college. They know that some children are born without the mental ability to do college-level work. Some families don't have enough money to pay for a college education. Some kids get terrible grades in high school or simply don't want to go to college. But you've done well in school, a college has recognized your achievements, and you are motivated to continue to study and grow. Your parents are actually incredibly proud of you.
Another thing, something you may not want to hear. Your parents may weep loudly as they head for the parking lot, or they may just sniff a little. But whether they are demonstrative or restrained, they are not likely to cry for long.
"I cried when we waved goodbye," one young man's mother told me last night. "And then I got in the car and drove about 10 miles and suddenly felt an enormous sense of relief."
More inhibited parents discover that they can hold lengthy, interesting, and uninterrupted conversations, just the two of them. Or they begin cooking more exotic food, or redecorate the house, or go out more often because the car is always available. Some parents even go back to school.
Sure, they'll miss you. Yes, they will be excited when you come home (though if you bring enough dirty laundry, you may be able to curb their enthusiasm). But just as you are beginning a new and important and good stage in your life, so are they.
Which is why I'm not sure Mike Gerson was wise to end his sweet essay by saying, "My son...there will always be room for you." Well, yeah, your parents aren't going to turn you away at the door, even after they've turned your room into a guest room. And yes, they will love you deeply till the end of their days (and will be grateful if you remember to phone home occasionally).
But chances are, they're hoping that in four years, more or less, you'll have a job and a place of your own. They never intended to raise a permanent child. Their goal was always to help you become a responsible adult.And now you're taking a major step toward that goal.
Really — in spite of all appearances — your parents are glad.
LaVonne Neff is an amateur theologian and cook; lover of language and travel; wife, mother, grandmother, godmother, dogmother; perpetual student, constant reader, and Christian contrarian. She blogs at Lively Dust and at The Neff Review.