Acceptance Letters: Parents, college and letting go

Putting Worry in Perspective

Elizabeth Weinstein
September 16, 2015

The other day we spent time with two families who are a couple steps behind us on the separation spectrum. The first was a family of old friends of ours, driving their first-born from their home in Chicago to Vermont for her first year at Middlebury. The second was a family we’d never met before, whose daughter is a senior in high school and interested in Kenyon. It was interesting to glimpse our lives a few years back and feel grateful that we are where we are.

Both families were full of questions that revealed their chief anxieties.  “It’s so far away,” said the Chicagoans. “Is it really necessary to go to Family Weekend?” they asked nervously, knowing that they could not make that drive again in two weeks and that buying two plane fares was also out of the question. “How did your son and daughter like going to school in such a small town?” asked the second set of parents, forgetting that the town my family lives in is even smaller than Gambier.  There were questions about dorms, classes, summer internships, transportation, money and everything you can think of — from the parents, that is. The girls themselves were more guarded. The new first-year said she was nervous, but she seemed self-contained, enthusiastic but not bubbly. With a wry smile, she said it was necessary to remain calm the more her mother got worked up. “It’ll be fine,” she said, echoing a phrase I’ve heard many times from my own offsprings’ lips.

The high school senior took a while to warm up, so we asked her questions, and she told us shyly that she plays the euphonium and will possibly major in English. She was a good listener, and appreciative, nodding her head and saying, “That sounds good!” when we bragged about Kenyon’s offerings. It was the parents who seemed the most nervous. In both families there was a little brother aged 10 or 11, who provided comic relief with funny faces and enthusiasm for unlimited dining hall food. I was grateful for them.

It’s not that I don’t understand where the parents are coming from. Even the non-helicopter variety (which we have tried to be) are still contemporary mothers and fathers who hand-raise their young and foist advice on them on everything from balanced diets to thank-you note etiquette. And we tend to tremble when these children pack their laptops and fly away.  (“We do?” my husband asks, making the gesture of washing one’s hands of something troublesome. Reader, he does.) We are aware of the dangers out there — inattentive advisors, roommates who stay up until 4, unwashed fruit and unlimited white bread. I’m only partly kidding; swear you haven’t fretted about at least one of those things. 

I’ve discovered that a good way to put worry in perspective is to flip it around and worry about the reverse. My son is a writer and editor for the Kenyon Collegian, and he joined a fraternity. I could worry that he hasn’t left himself enough time for his major at a college that is rigorously academic. My daughter, who graduated last May, has a lovely boyfriend she met at Kenyon who’s now in school in this country while she heads overseas for her own postgraduate education.

Now turn these around. What if my son had no extracurriculars, for example, or what if my daughter was sitting around putting her life on hold, waiting for the fellow? You see?

“It’s not your problem,” is one of my husband’s favorite responses to my open-ended worrying. And although his comment doesn’t necessarily stop my runaway worry train, it often does make me pause between stations and think: What can I control here? Very little. And it’ll be fine.