Family orientation, Wright Auditorium, Smith College, August 2023: The dean of student life offers this, “You’ve given them their wings, now it’s time to let them soar.” The emphasis is on letting them go.
People applaud. I do not.
I didn’t give my daughter her wings. I would have. I tried. I would have happily built her an amazing set of wings. Wings with the best synthetic fabrics to maximize loft and repel water. Wings with a lightweight carbon fiber exoskeleton to balance strength and flexibility. I would have spared no expense. But my daughter did not want those wings.
My daughter built her own wings that seem fragile to me
Instead, my daughter built her wings with tissue paper and balsa wood. She lined the edges with lace, bleached to shine brightly in the sun. The thin sheath of fabric is dyed in vibrant colors. They are a beautiful thing to behold, and totally unsuitable to sustaining flight. And now she is standing 3 stories up in an oak tree, preparing to jump. And you are telling her to go for it? It will never work. She’s going to get hurt.
At least, that’s how the metaphor plays out in my mind.
When the kids were little, I worried a lot about safety. Like many my age, I believed that if my children were not constantly monitored they would be kidnapped from the park. I had enough perspective to question whether it was good for kids to be constantly monitored. So, I pretended to not pay attention.
I gave my kids a ‘safe’ environment where they could become independent
My goal at the park was for them to forget that I was there. I wanted them to feel the freedom of doing whatever they wanted, without any actual danger. I picked a location with a perfect vantage to spot any potential hazards.
They were free to play, but I was there to make sure nothing went wrong. There are a lot of trees at Smith and I feel that I could successfully hide for many years. But I’m not sure it would be a good idea.
There is a scientific principle called the observer effect, which says that observing a situation or phenomenon necessarily changes it. The thing being watched is literally not the same because we are watching it. It is often referenced in discussions of quantum physics, but it also has applications in sociology, psychology and linguistics. And apparently it applies to my daughter.
When we arrived at Smith, they sent all of the parents and students to the field house to pick up dorm keys and information. After check-in, we were invited to walk through rows of tables from different clubs and organizations.
My daughter wants to discover what her school offers by herself
The range of options and activities was amazing. I found my daughter to tell her about what I had seen. I told her there was a table from food services that was giving away reusable silverware and apples from a local orchard where the college buys fruit. How cool is that? She responded with all the patience of a teenager. “Dad, don’t tell me about it. I want to discover these things myself.”
Once when I was in college, I visited an art museum with my girlfriend and several of her friends. They were all art majors. One friend, was particularly opinionated. At each painting, she would pause and then share her feelings. “I can’t stand Kandinsky. His work is so angry.”
“Oh, I love Matisse, the colors are just so vibrant.”
There was no work in the museum for which she did not have an opinion. I knew little about art, but I knew that I couldn’t spend the day walking with her in the museum. There was simply no space to decide what I thought about the art. My impression of it had been tainted before I had a chance to really look at it. I don’t want to be that person for my daughter.
My daughter is not a wallflower. In many respects it feels like she was born with a clear idea of what she wanted in life. But when it comes to her innermost thoughts, she shares little. When she was a sophomore in high school, she excitedly informed us that she had won a district-wide poetry contest.
Up to that point, we did not know that she was writing poetry. From bits and pieces of evidence, I know that she still writes poetry – generally on her phone. But the only poems of hers which I have read, are the ones that were published.
I need to stop scrutinizing my daughter in order to let her flourish
This makes sense to me. A poem is a fragile thing. Or at least, the idea for a poem is a fragile thing. Judgment, and even well-meaning advice, can kill it before it has a chance to grow. Once complete, a poem can be powerful. I think her identity is also a poem. And it is under development. It is fragile. And its development will be changed if it remains under observation.
This is not to say I am worrying needlessly. Some of the things that she keeps to herself are less endearing. The wings she brought to college are not going to allow her to fly. Then again, no human has ever flown with wings of any design (I checked). It’s physiologically impossible. It’s just a bad metaphor. The question is whether she will get up after the crash and find a realistic means of getting where she wants to go.
As parents after drop-off we find ourselves asking “Now what?”
And so, we give her the physical things that she needs to start college and we leave.
When we brought our first child home from the hospital twenty odd years ago, we set down his car seat on the floor. Sitting across from him on the sofa, my wife turned to me and said “now what?” I find myself thinking the same thing now.
I came home to a place that seemed as unfamiliar as campus must have seemed to my daughter. It had all the same things that were present when I left, but it all felt different. What good was an ice-skating rink now? The same was true of the high school, the middle school, the elementary school, little league parks and soccer fields. Places that were central to my kids’ life and therefore also to mine.
I met most of my current friends while waiting around for my kids at one of these places. All these places were now suddenly irrelevant to my life. My friends are starting to murmur things about lower taxes, warmer climates and downsizing.
And it isn’t just my kids. The other kids are gone too. After successfully protecting my children from abduction at various suburban playgrounds, it now feels like all the kids have been taken.
It feels like all the children have gone now
In six short weeks late this summer, they all disappeared. A final post on Facebook of a moderately annoyed semi-grown-up version of someone who used to play in my backyard, standing in a dorm room, was my notification that they would henceforth be gone from my world.
Common sense and good judgment tell me that a 56 year old man should not “friend” the 19 year old children of his friends on social media. But the community is different without them. Some I knew only generally, but the children of my good friends are like informal nieces and nephews.
It all feels like an elaborate circus has picked up and left town. What had seemed like a permanent and vibrant place has been exposed as a temporary structure. One that can be folded up and moved away in a matter of days. A trampled field is the only remaining indication that anything was ever here. My role as ringmaster, turns out to have only been a temp job. I’ll be lucky to get hired as a clown in the next show.
If that sounds bleak, I should mention that I have a wonderful wife, and an amazing son. My son went to college two years ago, and life did not come to an end. That should be a sign that we will get through this transition as well. But when he left, I naturally turned my attention to helping my daughter get ready for school. I didn’t prepare for what would happen when I ran out of kids.
If I want my kids to make new lives, I need to as well
On the way to Massachusetts, I had no trouble telling my daughter that change is good. That she would make new friends in college. I told her the virtues of taking chances and trying new things.
Now that I am facing the same challenges, my advice seems a little glib. But I left myself no room for excuses. If I want my kids to take on new roles, lead interesting lives, and make the world a better place, I can’t really expect less of myself. Maybe I didn’t fully see this change coming, but here it is.
If I want to do something useful in the world, I can’t sit around nagging my kids to go do it. I need to get busy myself. To the empty nesters of the world, I say: we are all first years now.
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Eric is an attorney and occasional writer who is currently finding time for friends and hobbies in Evanston Illinois