Moving your child into college is often bittersweet, and the process can seem particularly daunting when your son or daughter has selected to study at a university an ocean away from home. Elizabeth Ball from Jacksonville, Florida, detailed her experience moving her son Bradley into JCU housing for his freshman year at John Cabot University on her blog, and her parting advice to her son rings true for all JCU students: you will only fully understand a place by leaving it.
Sometimes the best counsel comes from yourself. Consider this example: a high school senior in 1985 chooses as her yearbook quote, “…selfhood begins with a walking away, and love is proved in the letting go.” She found the last lines of this C. Day Lewis poem in the Norton Anthology of Poetry, and selected them as a direct message to her mother to LEAVE HER ALONE. Plus, her first choice, “Two roads diverged in a wood” had been claimed by nearly everybody else. Then, 30 years later, she stumbles upon the old yearbook, reads the vaguely familiar quote, and Googles the poem.
It stuns her, for her child will be leaving for college soon, and letting go is just what she’ll have to do. C. Day Lewis wrote the poem for his son Sean, and it perfectly captures the diffident, determined path of the young, seedlings breaking off from their “parent stem.”
I can tell you, it generated a synapse in my brain to experience this poem as both child and parent. In an instant, I understood both sides of the experience: walking away and letting go. My adolescent self taught my adult self an important lesson: you remember what it feels like to want so desperately to be free of your parents, so don’t be hurt when your own child feels the same way.
No matter how you may want to manage this parting, mitigate it, rationalize it, the truth is your son needs to walk away just like you. He cannot wait to be free of you, for you to LEAVE HIM ALONE, and this is okay.
Fast forward to August 2016, and my husband and I take our son to college at John Cabot University in Rome, Italy, because he not only wants to leave, but to go far, far away, and that is okay too. And on check-in day, when my husband wants to unpack and settle him in his dorm room, a request which ruffles some feathers, adding to general levels of stress and freshman exasperation, I simply ask, “Do you want us to go?” And our son replies, “Yes.”
So we walk away from him, exit the dorm, roaming the cobblestone streets to find a place to eat lunch called T-Bone: the American Steakhouse, a choice which would embarrass our son tremendously, since it is so touristy. I actually think, well good thing he’s not with us. Leaving him to go eat a hamburger and drink red wine to ponder our dismissal is all okay.
We meet him for dinner later that evening and, again, the next evening, both times asking about his day. What time did he finally receive his dorm packet? What are his roommates like? When does he select his classes? He answers cheerfully at first, then slowly clams up, losing patience with our queries, a conversational pattern that started around age 11, and has peaked, I hope, at age 18. But this is fine, honestly, because I, like my mother, can carry on a one-sided conversation with a college-bound child. Be kind (but not a pushover), be safe, and always have a sense of humor, I tell him. He looks away and I know he is, again, counting the minutes until he can leave us.
So, I give him a the biggest piece of advice in my arsenal, something no one had ever told me, a grand jewel of irony gleaned from life and books, specifically two read on this trip.* This is important, I say, please listen: “You will only fully understand a place by leaving it!”
It’s a basic, spare declaration, so simple as to not have sunk in (despite his nod and grimace of acceptance to the contrary). In any case, like my mother, I repeat the advice two times for good measure because it is so important. Life is all about comparison/contrast. How can you know what the American South really feels like unless you immerse yourself in a foreign culture like Italy’s? How could you even begin to treasure the palm trees of Florida until you are surrounded by Rome’s palm pines? (And this one too, please oh please: how can you truly appreciate your parents if you never leave them?)
As we settle into our empty nest, I’ve begun working on a caveat to this advice: the farther away you travel, the better you understand. It certainly helps justify all our upcoming trips to Italy…and back. For I’m slowly starting to understand this phase of life: as we parents walk away from our children, we are learning too.