The Emotion Train: When Graduation Hits Home

By Debby Shulman (who is photographed with her eldest son Joey, aka: The Graduate)

This May has proven to be a wild ride on the emotion train. Some years are like that, in which we have to acknowledge that this month represents huge transitions for our kids graduating from high school and college … and even those who are moving on to high school. The flurry of commencement photos and my own son’s graduation from college has left us kind of scratching our heads and wondering how this all happened when we weren’t looking … It’s that quick blink and all of the sudden you’re watching your eldest walk across a football stadium, only to look up and find you in the stands and nod that little nod with that sly smile and take a diploma from a man who looks like ‘Gandalf’ from the Hobbit … white robes, austere demeanor, big hands.

Someone please tell me where my son is.

It cannot be this tall, bearded man who at the age of eight ran off a plane by himself when he decided maybe it wasn’t time for overnight camp (chased by a flight attendant screaming, “Young man, you are BREAKING FAA REGULATION!!”). It can’t be this curious, self-proclaimed science geek who spent hours creating robots made out of Legos, and there is NO WAY he resembles the young teenager who called me one cold and blustery afternoon back in February of 2010 and whispered into the phone, “I think I just got into Michigan.”

And that is what brings me to last night’s dinner at a very crowded restaurant, where I ran into some camp friends who have a son graduating from high school.

My friend described to me what it felt like finding out his son would be attending his own alma mater as an undergrad … and just like the rest of us, he cried.

Sitting in the stands of a swim meet watching his son check a text, and from the pool deck, he found his Dad. They always know just to where to look, right? That defining moment where we take a collective sigh and emotionally commit to whatever is coming our way on this new path of life.

So now, having had one graduate from college, I’m back to watching these difficult transitions play out in real time, and I am not alone. My posse and I have meals, drinks and texts where we share successes, excitement and exasperation over this “after college” life. We rely on one another for comfort and laughs as we manage the future careers of our three adult children (it takes a village, you know), each one of us listening intently as we continue to grapple with what this means for our “boys”. We are back to where we were 20 years ago, spending every day together in some ridiculous baby class, rolling balls back and forth, dressing them in matching Hank Player outfits and listening to an overly boisterous Jewish woman sing Hebrew songs on her guitar. Mac and cheese, tuna salad eaten standing up in someone’s kitchen until it was time to nap them, and then we’d get back on the phone with each other until it was time to make dinner. Fruit roll ups, juice boxes, happy meals.

Full circle. I am back to needing these ‘sisters’ in my life every day again and they know it. We all do. It’s a different type of transition now. But a necessary one at that.

Back to my camp friend and he acknowledges the transition that is coming his way. Teary-eyed AGAIN as we wait for our much-needed cocktails, we both understand that this will impact our lives and the lives of the siblings left behind. There’s no preparation for this, no set of instructions in the “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” book because nobody has figured this out yet … and just when you think you have, they screw up and do something outrageously age appropriate and we’re stuck wondering how we didn’t see that coming…

Vicious circle, these teens … just when you think it’s safe to take a breath, you are reminded of why it’s called a ‘transition’ and not a conclusion.

I marvel at how these life-altering transitional moments affect everything from sibling dynamics, to grocery bills and getting everyone to the table for dinner, in the same city, at the same time. We have to remember what it was like for us that first year out of college … It’s scary to be in no man’s land where you’re living out of your childhood bedroom but paying your own taxes. It’s exhausting having your first real 9-5 job in which your performance most definitely matters, and it’s a bit of a wake-up call when you discover that it’s time to pay your own credit card bills. But helping our son figure it out sooner rather than later is what our job requires now.

Transition this – Your 20’s are not the “new” teens, and 30 is absolutely NOT the new 20 … so get off your ass and make it happen now.

May is a month full of recognition that wherever they are off to – high school, college or life thereafter, it comes with a new set of obligations for us: fostering, encouraging and letting go. It’s not fair for us that when we close our eyes they are little again … I spent my son’s college graduation weekend hugging his waist really too hard, trying to smell his neck because every now and then I get a whiff of baby, and touching his little cheek, which is now covered in hair. I literally wanted that little guy, with his sweet face and funny personality, to crawl into my lap. One more after nap “Aladdin”, one more homemade Halloween costume, one more afternoon watching snow fall, eating the cookie dough in nothing but a diaper and a T-shirt; make time stop. I can recognize this transition, but it doesn’t mean I’m ready for it.

Fostering, encouraging and letting go.

Happy May to all of you.

Lisa Barr, Editor of GIRLilla Warfare: Debby Shulman is a college essay consultant and academic tutor with a private practice in Northbrook, Illinois.  She also professionally collaborates with Amy Simon College Consulting in Bannockburn, Illinois.  Debby also blogs about Motherhood/Teen issues for Your Teen magazine (www.yourteenmag.com). Check out her valuable advice. 

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