As parents, we devote 18 years of our lives to one goal: Getting our child(ren) into college. We work hard at it. We investigate and select the best preschools. We choose a dwelling for our household on the basis of how the neighborhood schools will treat our child (or we live where we want and spend a fortune on private school tuition). We sign them up for soccer and ballet and scouts and then worry if we've over-scheduled them. We fight with teachers. We wrestle with mathematics homework we don't really understand. We miss movies we'd like to see because they need us home with them. We advocate for them. We encourage them. We put their needs above our own.
And then one day we realize the fruits of our labor. They leave home to go to college. And we beg them to come back.
Don't deny it. We all do it. Many years ago, my mother dropped me off at college, helped me move my possessions into my room, and then stood there weeping, annoyed at herself because she'd sworn she wouldn't. She rushed herself and my brothers out of my dorm room, blubbering the whole way, and then waved at me from the truck she'd borrowed from my grandfather, parked in the unloading zone seven floors below, and I waved back, never even beginning to fathom that I would repeat her performance just 30 short years later.
I was the first in my family to go to college, so my mother had no real role models for what she was about to experience. She had no way of knowing that sending me to college and thrusting me into the middle class would create a divide between us that we would spend the rest of her life trying to understand and bridge.
What she did know was that college was my ticket out of poverty and toward independence. So she persevered. She started prepping me for college before I even started kindergarten. We did numbers and letters on a chalk board, and she coached me: "Beth, you are going to college so you will never have to be dependent on a man."
Years later, my middle class existence firmly in place, I realize I have done much the same thing with my own two children, one of whom was successfully admitted to an elite college three years ago and is now a junior at Wesleyan. The other is a high school junior trying to pass AP Gov while figuring out majors and colleges and prepping for college entrance exams and all that jazz. The parent-child divide, however, is no less intense. The older one plans to move to Los Angeles after graduation to make her mark in films, and the younger one just slammed his door at me when I told him he could not go to South America alone over summer break. The words are different, but the tune is the same.
I cried today after I waved goodbye to my daughter, who is driving herself back to school, a two-day drive from St. Louis to Connecticut, during which I will be existing on coffee and nerves. Her college experience is very different from mine. I attended a public university, and she goes to one of the most expensive private schools on the planet. We share a love of movies, which we watch on Netflix with lots of interruptions to discuss acting, dialogue, set design, and whatever. It would drive my mother nuts. Still, her politics are way to the left of mine, which are already fairly left-leaning, and I can hear "you just don't understand me" in her tone when we disagree.
My son is a swimmer and an absent-minded student. I remember the day I realized that he did not share my intellectual curiosity or my love of learning for learning's sake. His motto, "why do I need to learn this - I'm never going to use it," still brings tears of frustration to my eyes. Still, he is good at math and enjoys astronomy, and did I mention he swims miles every day? I could never do that, but I love to watch him do it. Our divide exists, but it is not as deep as our love.
And that is essentially what my mother taught me before she died. We want our children to do better than us, to have better lives. The test of our success is theirs. Sometimes their success takes them away from us for a while, but if we do it right, if they know we love them, they will always come back.