I have a T-shirt hierarchy. The few shirts I own with words on them are worn for very casual dress only; then they serve as workout clothes before becoming pajamas, before becoming rags. But there are two T-shirts that haven't traveled to the rag bin yet, even though they are nearly worn thin. I pull them out to sleep in more nights than not because they are a constant reminder to check my expectations and to remember that my children are now adults.
The shirts are from Colgate University and Emerson College. I bought them when I visited both of my children at the schools they were then attending. I remember the feelings of relief and sadness I felt when I realized that my children were grown, out of the house and on their way to independence. I bought the shirts as kind of a joke, adding them to the top of the heap of stuff I was purchasing for my kids. I had no idea that they would taunt me for many years.
Each of my children lasted a year-and-a-half at their respective colleges, the colleges they had been so sure were "perfect" for them.
The first semester at Colgate my son called to tell me he was reading Kierkegaard and finally understood the sly meanings behind stories in the Onion. The third semester, he joined a fraternity and stopped going to class. He told me about trips to Manhattan, four hours away, and partying with the daughter of actors Gabriel Byrne and Ellen Barkin. He fell so far behind he could not catch up. He was kindly asked to leave Colgate, temporarily, until he could get back on track.
When I visited my daughter that first parents' weekend, she seemed so grown up, so sure of herself. But while on a semester abroad during her sophomore year my daughter confessed to having had acute anxiety for months. Now she could not seem to manage her course work and the extensive traveling that was required. When I met up with her in London, she told me she had to leave school for a while. That December she came back to live with me.
I had the usual parental expectations of the professional class: My children would go to college. And they would graduate from that college in four years. Where they went exactly didn't matter (though like many parents, I had my preferences). I left that choice up to them, providing only gentle guidance. And at first it appeared that both had chosen wisely.
Both were amply prepared, bright, motivated. But the emotional cost was simply more than either of them could bear. It wasn't so much the distance (although I think that may have been part of it) or the school; it was something more simple. They were not ready to be on their own.
Despite my best efforts, both of my children felt unmoored by the very different but very disturbing worlds they found themselves in. My son could not keep up with the rich, fast life that many of his classmates enjoyed but still felt an urge to fit in; my daughter was stunned by the poverty and helplessness of people on the streets of Boston. She was politicized by the Occupy movement. She felt powerless to help.
I felt powerless, too. I have been neither a helicopter parent nor a free-range one: I tried to hover somewhere in between, offering unconditional love and, as they grew older, a free discussion of any topic that interested them, with as little judgment as possible. I offered honesty and candidness, two things that were sorely missing from my own upbringing. But I also offered a safe place to land, something I had never had. After some tough months, both took it.
Years earlier at my daughter's piano recital, I had had one of those sudden moments of clarity. When she got up to play I realized: If she stumbles and falls, it is not about me. I shouldn't feel disappointed. My hands unclenched for the first time. This isn't to say that I didn't have hopes and expectations for my children; I still did, and I'm sure I always will. But as each sailed through grueling b'nai mitzvah lessons, SATs and ACTs, rigorous academic schedules with sports and dance and public service and jobs mixed in, I thought I had dodged a bullet. I was sure I was over the hump when I said goodbye to each one, five years apart, on the eve of their college adventure.
Years later my son is nearing the end of his PhD in neuroscience after swallowing his pride, taking classes at a local community college and then graduating from a prestigious state university that he had once dismissed as a choice. My daughter has a degree in psychology and music from a school that had accepted her years ago and to which she reapplied. In her practicums, she provided music therapy for Alzheimer's patients and men and women with traumatic brain energy. She sings and plays her guitar in public; she composes music. She's nannying for two families and planning to go to grad school if her music career doesn't take off.
I still hold my breath sometimes when memories of those awful years surface from nowhere or when I don those old shirts. But I keep them as a reminder that what parents want for their children and what actually happens are two different things — and that we are responsible for neither their successes nor their failures. I also think of the gorgeous tattoo my son got after graduation — a full-color, half-sleeve portrait of a phoenix rising from the ashes — and I breathe again.
Lisa Solod is an essayist and fiction writer whose work has been published in the New York Times, the Washington Monthly, Dame and Lilith, among dozens of other news sites, magazines, literary journals and anthologies.