Today’s Mom Talk is resounding proof that being a parenting expert doesn’t exempt you from the roller coaster of emotions that comes with actually raising children. Dr. Madeline Levine, PhD, is a clinician, consultant, educator, and speaker, and the author of the New York Times bestsellers The Price of Privilege and Teach Your Children Well, as well as the new book Ready or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World, which comes out February 11th. But her essay today contains no advice, just a wrenching-yet-beautiful description of her own heartbreak, as she prepares to send her oldest son off to college. Madeline lives in San Francisco with her husband and is the proud mother of three grown sons and a newly minted grandmother.
That’s the wrong title for this story. This is not a tragic story. It is painful only in how mundane it is. In spite of the title, this story lacks drama. It is about being middle-aged and having your first child go off to college. I should have found a title that captured the bromide about having wings and roots. I should have begun with assurances that I know full well that mothers who hang on too long and too hard are bound to be disappointed. But in my heart there is only one title, one experience that I am afraid of having, and that is losing Loren.
I write about this because writing is one way to feel pain, to push it outside of oneself and consider it again. Each fall, children from every corner of the country will leave home and enter college for the first time. “Children”—there’s the giveaway. My strapping eighteen-year-old son is no child. He has driven for years. Been to Israel and Honduras. Gotten drunk. Been to traffic court. Managed to maintain a straight-A average in spite of playing two varsity sports and running a start-up business. He is a teenager at worst, a young man at best. Yet when I write without thinking, I still say “child.” Not that I don’t know about children. I have two other sons, both younger than Loren. Besides, I’m a psychologist to boot. I see plenty of real children in my practice. But still, I worry that I’m doing or feeling something very odd. I can’t believe I cry when I leave his laundry on his bed. For Christ’s sake, he’s not even gone yet.
I remember when I was eighteen years old, and went away to college. My father sat on the window sill in my dorm room and didn’t speak. My father, the cop, who I loved beyond words. We used to walk his beat together in lower Manhattan in the ‘50s when he knew every store keeper by name, and I was sure to come home with a bag full of trinkets and a stomach ache from the sweets I was given. When I was a teenager, he called me his “lady-baby,” and refused to let me out of the house with either spaghetti straps or short skirts. He retired from the police force after twenty years, never once having drawn his service revolver. Everything I know about right and wrong was planted by him decades ago in the suburbs of Queens. He loved his work passionately, and retired only when he believed that he could be a better “provider” if he took his police pension and worked another job. He floundered from one venture to another, stripped of his identity. One year after leaving the police force, he sat in my dorm room, tired from the antidepressant drugs he was on, and also perhaps mourning the loss of his “lady-baby.” It was the last time I saw him. He died of a heart attack several months later. I never said goodbye.
So, perhaps it’s not surprising that this whole going off to college business is difficult for me. In spite of years of therapy, I know that I carry around an intractable distortion: that leaving and dying are pretty much the same thing. Loren, who somehow understands this idiosyncratic equation, reminds me quite regularly that he isn’t going away for good, that he’ll come home often. He is gentle with me on this point.
Even still, I carry my sadness around like a secret. I feel I have no right to be sad as his acceptances roll in. There are griefs which demand to be shared: friends die of cancer, kids are killed in car wrecks. Other griefs can’t be shared because they are illicit. This grief seems invisible, pointless, self-indulgent. Like all women in times of stress, I anxiously scan the women’s magazines at the check-out counter. I want Redbook or Good Housekeeping to assault me with reassurances like “Ten Easy Ways to Get Over the Blues When Your First Child Goes to College.” I won’t care if they only tell me to be perky or get a new haircut—I just want to feel that there is a sisterhood I am part of. I notice that there are plenty of articles about how to mend a broken heart if your man is cheating or you’ve just had a miscarriage. Sending a perfectly healthy, capable young adult off to college doesn’t seem to fit into the broken heart category, but it could.
As the months pass and Loren gets closer to finalizing his college plans, I start to have chest pains. A kind of achy heaviness right in the middle of me. My cardiologist listens and thumps and assures me that all is well with my heart. Then, with the kind of brusqueness men often show when inching towards the emotional, he says: “I used to feel the same way when my kids were leaving. I was depressed for a year. You’ll get over it.” My otherwise hands-off cardiologist—“I can’t tell you how to lose weight” and “I can’t tell you how to exercise” (why the hell not?)—is wise to the fact that broken hearts can come from perfectly normal, even desirable progressions.
Which brings me back to Loren. What confuses me is the complexity of all this. Up until now, my feelings were pretty simple: I adored the kid. Did my best to teach him right from wrong. Made sure he always thanked his teachers and coaches and helped him practice a firm handshake and a direct gaze. Of course, he pissed me off sometimes. He was so charming that I’d occasionally feel manipulated. Occasionally I’d even be manipulated. But overall, in my whole life, Loren was the easiest person to love. For eighteen years, there was never a night when he was home and I didn’t go in to his room and say “I love you.” For eighteen years he said it back. Whatever had gone right or wrong or indifferently in my day, I counted on ending it with my son’s affirmation: “I love you, Mom.”
There are so many secrets over the course of a lifetime. So many secrets about us and our children and our partners. While we may love all our children, we do not love them all the same. We may adore one, have one pull at our heartstrings, take one for granted. Freud said there is no better position in life than to be the first born son, adored by his mother. Loren was my first born, named for my father, talented and personable, bright and endearing. It was easy to make Loren the center of my attention.
Women of my generation were thwarted in a million subtle ways. When I told my college advisor that I was interested in a career in medicine, she handed me a piece of paper with an address on it: it was the school of nursing. No bedpans for me. So I married a doctor instead of becoming one, and then when the women’s movement opened some doors, I went back and got my own Ph.D. I loved having that Ph.D. after my name, but I loved being “Loren’s mom” more.
I loved being Loren’s mom because I loved Loren so much. Easy, funny, and gifted, he made it easy to forget my own failures and frustrations. I was chastised for having “big eyes” as a child, for being too ambitious and asking too many questions. I was determined to turn that shortcoming into a virtue, to make sure that my sons grew up confident and curious and hungry for what the world had to offer. Loren went to mother-infant classes, pre-school, Gymboree, karate lessons, music lessons, Little League, sports camps and play groups. He was, to put it kindly, “overscheduled.” We were lucky I didn’t ruin him. A good part of my career has been spent urging parents not to be preoccupied with giving their children “every advantage.” Every advantage is often simply being available and listening and guiding, not directing.
I often think back to a particular day many years ago, when my husband Lee, myself, Loren, and his younger brother, Michael, were out on a sailboat on San Francisco Bay. The day started out light, but after a while the sky turned angry and the wind started kicking water over the side of our boat. In spite of being a certified lifeguard, I have a terror of the ocean. As a child, at Jones Beach, I was pulled out by the undertow and as the waves roiled, forcing me feet over head, I was certain I would die. I didn’t, but the bursting cold terror of that experience was rising again in me as our little sailboat heeled over on its side, facing into the wind. My two sons were nine and five at the time, and Loren, ever watchful of shifts in mood, was clearly tracking my rising panic. I had been fighting panic attacks for years. Pulled over on highways, bridges, in stores, on airplanes, sweating, trembling, gasping for breath, unable to think. I worked hard at hiding my disorder and was determined that my children would not go out into the world with fear leading. But on that little boat, my panic was spiraling out of control when Loren said evenly to his brother, “Mom needs a circle right now.” The two of them, soaked from the waves, with their oversized life jackets and wind- flattened hair, slipped off their seats and held each other’s hands, making a circle around me. “Nothing can happen when you’re in our circle of love,” said my oldest son. And nothing did.
Now it’s my turn to send Loren out into the world protected by the circle of love he has grown up in. He can’t understand what I mean when I say that whenever I look at him, I see his whole history. I see him at birth with no hair, at five with no front teeth, at thirteen with a body that he wears like it belongs to someone else, and at sixteen again with no hair (part of a testosterone-inflamed basketball ritual where the entire team shaved their heads in a gesture of unity and conformity). The pictures that cover our halls of him at different ages have an air of unfamiliarity to him. He doesn’t remember being that young boy, but I remember. It is the grace of motherhood to be able to let go of what you love most. It is the toughest thing I have ever done.
As I finished writing this story, Loren burst in through the door. I realize that these days are numbered, that soon, he will not come swooping in at 3:00 p.m., will not grab his gym bag and head out for basketball practice. I remind him to take out the garbage, as I do every day, an intentional oversight which keeps us locked in our roles as mother and son. He races upstairs, drags out the garbage. I start to tell him that I’m writing this story about him. I know that it will not embarrass him, but neither will it be of particular interest to him. It is about the past, and he is only interested in the future.
This story, which recounts something that happened many years ago, was the beginning of my interest in not just the childhood experience, but also the parenting experience of change, transition, and loss. While I’m generally considered a “parenting expert,” the truth is that many of my concerns were forged in the isolation I felt as a parent when my kids were young. There is so much about child development, and nothing about adult development. We grow together—our children and ourselves. If you shortchange yourself you will most definitely shortchange your children.
My cardiologist ended up being right—it does get easier with time. I originally wrote this essay in 1998 as my son was heading off to college, and I’m sharing it now as I prepare to release my latest book, Ready or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain World. Even the title is ironic—he was ready, I was not. My journey as a parent was fraught with anxiety and uncertainty, and this book represents the lessons I learned along the way, countered with the pragmatic, science-backed solutions that I wish I had had during that time. Loren benefited from my personal growth as a parent. As I learned to let go of my need to orchestrate his life, I was able to trust him more and raise a self-sufficient kid who still says “I love you, Mom” at the end of every phone call or visit. My hope is that Ready or Not can help other parents learn how to raise children who are ready to face an unknown future with confidence and optimism—no matter how hard it is to let go.
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