A little over 2 weeks ago, my daughter went through what is a rite of passage for many children – the removal of tonsils. The procedure is routine, taking a little less than an hour and the patient is home that day. But, this being our first our “baby” although at 4 1/2 not so much a baby anymore) just the concept of surgery was harrowing for my wife and I. Leading up to the procedure, we did as much preparation as possible – met with the doctors, read every entry we could find on Google, WebMD, Wikipedia, etc, and asked friends who’s children had been through the experience for tips. We bought and read this wonderful book, Good-Bye Tonsils, to our daughter and tried to prepare her as well. The day of the surgery, we were as ready as we were ever going to be.
Prior to the surgery, my wife called “dibs” on being the one who would accompany our daughter into the operating room. However, since she’s expecting, she reluctantly passed the baton to me. One of the nurses remarked that it was “better when the dad goes, because the moms tend to get more emotional”. This nurse obviously had never sat next to me during a Hallmark commercial or ESPN Make a Wish special. As the morning went forward, all of the medical professionals were outstanding in providing us with as much information as possible and walking us through everything that would happen. Each person who would play a role in the surgery sat with us separately to say what they were doing, to talk to us in plain language, and didn’t leave until we were sure we had no questions. The moment finally came where my daughter was wheeled off into the operating room. I held her hand while she drifted off to her anesthesia-induced sleep and then gave her a kiss and told her I loved her, at which point the Dr. promptly (but gently) escorted me out so they could get to work.
No sooner had he left my side and I continued my walk down the hall did I turn into a blubbering mess. I, with the greatest of parental irrationality, felt like I was abandoning my precious child. I wanted to turn around and go back. I, with my extensive knowledge gleaned from the internet, wanted to carefully watch every move made by the doctor, a well-respected ENT with 20 years and countless surgeries under his belt. Don’t get me wrong, our doctor was wonderful and we trusted him implicitly, but this is OUR daughter and the only way we could completely be sure that she was ok was to see so with our own eyes. And it was that moment (at least in later reflection) that I realized the empathy I now felt for the parents who leave their children in our care for the first time.
As I replay the day in my head, I realize how eerily similar the image of me walking down that hospital hallway was to that of my mother, walking away from my residence hall room while I watched her shoulders heave up and down. And that’s an image replaying itself over and over again over these last few weeks of August on our residential campuses across the country – parents leaving their precious ones, many for the first time, hoping that those with whom they have entrusted their care will treat them well and keep them safe.
While we have gotten much better about how we include parents in the orientation process since even I was a college student, there’s still an air of, at the worst resentment and at best of inconvenience, directed toward the parents of our traditional-aged students. The term “helicopter parent” is often used disparagingly, with the belief that the parents of our students need to back off and “cut the cord”. Yes, there definitely are parents who at times are a bit too overinvolved, making all of the decisions and fighting all of the battles. But many of our parents are hovering, not from an inability to let go, but rather from a need to make sure their children are ok.
The needs of the parents of our first generation students are even more intensified. For them, the entire college experience is uncharted territory. What I appreciated most from our daughter’s medical team was how no one made assumptions or judgments. They didn’t use any medical jargon but they also weren’t condescending when trying to make the information as simple as possible. No question was dismissed or deemed unimportant. While nothing would alleviate our anxiety completely, and every moment of the longest hour of our young parenthood experience was still filled with nervousness, we also felt empowered and confident that our daughter was in good and capable hands.
So, as we prepare to spend another school year holding onto our hats as the helicopter propellers are felt overhead, let us all try to remember that many of these parents are trying to balance keeping a safe distance with the role they have played for 18-19 years – a role that has seen them hold hands during frightening moments, hug tight after bad dreams, and dry tears of frustration, pain, and disappointment. It’s a role that will constantly evolve, but for those who cherish it, at the core, it will always be the same. The questioning that might come of us doesn’t necessarily come from a lack of faith in our abilities, but from a need to make sure their children are in capable hands. While the college experience is, for many, a right of passage of adulthood, these burgeoning adults will always be someone’s child.