The years of hard work and dedication have finally come to fruition. Your senior in high school is admitted into college. You take the biggest sigh of relief you have had since he started high school. The rest of the senior year is filled with excited anticipation for your student as well as for yourself. The weeks prior to the drive (or airplane trip) to college are occupied with busy errands and online ordering to establish your student’s new home for the next few years. The actual trip to college may be filled with chatter while your youngster expresses his fears as well as aspirations, realizing that he is entering into one of the greatest transitions in life. Your role as parent is to reassure him that he will handle this change graciously while learning to maneuver and negotiate obstacles that come his way. Little did you realize the physiological reactions that would unexpectedly arise as you leave his dorm room.
This above scenario is a real life experience for me. As soon as I walked away from my son, leaving him with his roommate in his dorm room, the tears erupted and caught me off-guard. Through my sobs on the way home, I told my husband how surprised I was by my reaction. I thought I was ready for my son to leave the nest, spread his wings, and discover his own world. Even though I am a psychologist and intellectually understand these developmental processes, I occasionally forget my humanness and the physiological reactions that arise when confronted with such life transitions. Of course I am happy for him to find his own place in the world, but I also realized that I needed the space and time to give myself permission to mourn the loss of the youngster that he once was.
According to Erik Erikson’s dynamic psychosocial stages of development, I am solidly in the midst of one of the stages, Generativity versus Stagnation, which typically occurs between the ages of 40 and 64. Thus, the existential question I have is “how can I have meaning in my life and make my life count, both in terms of my own productivity as well as guiding the next generation? Have I done enough?; Could I have done more to help prepare him for life? The time went so fast; I just brought him home from the hospital.” His baby face will be forever etched into my memory. Another crisis for parents could be “who I am without taking care of my child?,” which also involves the Identity versus Role Confusion stage of development. Nonetheless, a prominent question pops up in my mind: “Did I do enough to help him grow into a responsible adult as I slowly relinquish my central role in the life of my growing child?”
The effort, work, patience, unconditional love and acceptance, moral teachings, and disciplinary strategies that have been constant issues in a parent’s life on a daily basis have to now evolve into a different approach and relationship. Rather than be fearful of these existential thoughts and questions, look to this evolutionary period as a time for renewal to get to know yourself again as well as your significant others, family, and friends. Further, it is an opportunity to reflect on how the specific time, experience, and wisdom of being a parent has enabled you to evolve as well. Examine aspects of yourself that you were once too tired or too busy to explore. Tap into your spiritual and/or religious self. What activities make you feel content and peaceful – they may be different ones as compared to when you were first became a parent. How have these past 18 years changed me? The important point is this: Although sending your child to college is the ending of a chapter in your life journey, it can also be a wonderful beginning of self-growth that could undoubtedly inspire your college student for his future ahead as he watches you transform from his forever changing lens.