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For both students and their parents, some anxiety about the transition to college is completely normal

By Ram Dolom

September 13, 2011 1:45 am

Something very important happens in the switch from high school to college: The student starts going to college.

And it is the very inviolate concreteness of that act (going to college) that makes it so complicated. We’ve been through this in our heads so many times. We saw it coming. But still, it is overwhelmingly a stage of ambiguity. For more parties than one.

One of the centers of this confusion is the reorganization of one’s entire social life. To those with the firm conviction that a complete cut-off from the past is best, hats off. But to the timid, nervous few who are anxious to “keep in touch,” there is the question of what to do.

Though thoughts turn immediately to friends, let’s not forget our dear parents, who (and henceforth I indulge in generalizations that won’t apply to everyone) have been the central ordering principle of our tiny worlds, both for the better (allowance) and the worse (curfews).

You could really milk the situation for its full theatrics ““ call the transition a “rite of passage” and the intervening summer of dreaming and worrying a time of “suspended animation.”

But for all the cliche pyrotechnics of those terms, all that’s really happening is you’re leaving high school and finally starting with university. This is, as they say, the moment. Your moment.

For all the right reasons, the focus of this period is the student ““ a fleet of counselors is on hand to answer every academic question; the potential freak-out that is move-in day is systematized to the point of dullness; the campus organizes activities to facilitate socializing. The student is, in short, taken care of.

But what of the parents?

The traditional conception of this period is one of rupture, a bright line between childhood dependency and adult autonomy. At the moment of change, the story goes something like: parent loosens reins and child obligingly makes the most of the slack.

This expectation of distance restrains the parental impulse to cling. Not to mention, the parenting strategy needs re-imagining. The old mode of physicality and concrete presence has to be put away for a relationship predicated on trust. The main way of seeing the child, through the eyes of nurturing supervision, is now obsolete.

It is useful to remember that as much as parents structured their children’s realities, the opposite is also true. For many of them, the child was the center of the universe, the altar to which all self-sacrifice possible was due. And the removal of that pillar, though certain lines of thought suggest it to be emancipating, can be a painful one.

But there is nothing inherent in the university experience that demands this change. As I said, all that’s happening is you are starting college. A goodbye to your parents doesn’t necessarily follow.

And, interestingly, the parents aren’t the only ones worried about these things.

After two years of living with my parents through community college, with frustration, impatient with the thought of finally coming free, the first thing I felt after moving in to my UCLA dorm was homesickness.

The immediate reaction, of course, was disavowal ““ disavowal of the nostalgia, of the attachment to my parents.

But, as Freud said, written into the process of forced rejection of the disavowed is the opposite process of intense and concrete recognition.

The more we deny something, the more we are acknowledging it.

The fact is, some of us do miss our parents. Which means that both sides are longing for the other but are paralyzed from reaching out because of the need to perform expected roles.

So this, I guess, is my message: It’s fine to miss your parents; they probably miss you a lot too.

Do you suffer from homesickness at the start of fall quarter? Email Dolom at [email protected] Send general comments to [email protected]

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Ram Dolom
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