Separation Blues

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The day Pam McGinnis sent her oldest daughter Ann off to college, she became acutely aware of that vacant place in the house.

"I was a little weepy," admits McGinnis, a corporate writer for Kettering Medical Center. "That night it seemed kind of weird. We'd walk past Ann's bedroom and it was empty."

Whether it's a first child or the last, parents can experience these feelings of loss.

How a parent copes when sending that first, last, or any child, off to college can often be a test for a marriage or a time of renewal.

"So many times in our society, parents live through their kids," said Dr. Stephen Fortson, associate professor and chairman of the Department of Human Services at Wright State University. "(A husband and wife) might not be as close as they once were when that child is leaving for college. There can suddenly be a lot of pressure on the relationship."

Pam and her husband Carlo, a Dayton attorney, have five children. Ann is now 21 and a senior communications major at Hanover College. Claire, 19, is a sophomore English and political science major at Kenyon. Craig, 17, is a senior at Oakwood High School. Marie is 14 and an OHS freshman. The youngest, Jane, is 11 and in fifth grade.

Still, sending their firstborn child off to college "was a big deal," Pam said.

Eventually, the McGinnis family took a leaf out of the dining room table and younger daughter Marie, who had been sharing room with Jane, moved into Ann's old room.

The change can be a viewed as one of a marriage's transition points, but it can also be test of how balanced the marriage is, Fortson said.

Those transition points in life are fairly predictable: growing up, getting married, raising your own children and then sending them off to college, he said.

"If you put your role as a parent ahead of your role as a spouse, it's a huge change and it could be a setup for a crisis," Fortson said.

The clue is keeping balance within the family.

"Don't sacrifice your role as husband and wife, don't sacrifice your individuality. That way it's not as big a blow when that child goes off to college."

Parents also need to communicate with each other about their needs, he said.

"A husband and wife can be their own best support services," he said.

WSU Assistant Dean Jeanne Fraker often deals with parents who come with their children to orientation events at WSU. She recommends that parents come to such events to reassure themselves that their student can cope with the change.

She has a plaque on her wall that states her philosophy: "There are only two lasting bequests we can give our children. One is roots and the other is wings."

"The relationship between the student and the parent is going to change," said Fraker. "We want the student to feel well grounded and ready to partake of this big adventure, but also intuitive enough to make use of the resources and support they have available."

For McGinnis, it was learning to feel comfortable that she had given her child those roots and wings.

"I was afraid she's be distracted by everything from beer to boys. She had a steady boyfriend at the time and I also worried that she wouldn't mix it up with the other kids," she said.

During Ann's senior year in high school and subsequent college visits, McGinnis said she did feel somewhat guilty that the other four children were not getting a lot of attention.

"It (was) all about Ann — but that's because we were about to put her someplace that was going to charge us $17,000 a year to keep her there," McGinnis said.

As a result, Jane, who was seven at the time, got some unexpected experiences.

"She knew what SATs were, what waiting lists were," said McGinnis. "She's never been to Disneyland, but she's been to Kenyon and Oberlin!"

And suddenly second daughter, Claire, was now seen as "the oldest" child, McGinnis said.

Then when Claire went off to Kenyon, there were still some tears, but the transition was easier.

"Even with the second one, it was the same big deal," McGinnis said. Now, "It's kind of nice I have all this time with my other kids."

Fraker says parents shouldn't worry about students not having a lot of contact with them, something McGinnis said she struggled with when Ann went off to college.

It's a sign that parents have done a good job "whether or not a student acknowledges that e-mail or that package of goodies. Everybody likes getting a package of favorite snacks in the middle of the term," Fraker said.

McGinnis said she finally came to terms with only the occasional communication.

"If your kid hasn't called, don't be concerned," she said. "I learned to let the tie between home and school be flexible and then I backed off. After all, if she's not calling me all the time, she's having fun."

There are also issues parents face when children are commuting to college and still living at home, as a number of WSU students do.

Parents may think that because their students have classes only three days a week, they can still carry the same chores or household responsibilities they did in high school, Fraker said.

Student life has changed a great deal since parents went to school, she said. Students often carry heavier course loads, while being involved in outside jobs and extracurricular activities.

"Keep an open, supportive communication system," Fraker said.

Part of raising a successful college student is help a child build some individuality and independence long before high school graduation.

That communication and independence should start in the student's junior or senior year of high school, Fraker said.

"There needs to be opportunities for a student to develop individuality, independence and to make good decisions," Fraker said. "You can't send them off to college without the experience of knowing what to do. (I've seen situations) where Mom is still waking up the high school junior in the morning. Mom's not going to be there when you need to make that 8 a.m. class."

The bottom line for parents when sending a child to college is simply this, Fortson said: "It doesn't need to be a crisis. It can be a very golden time for a husband and wife, a time to share more."

McGinnis agrees.

"Parents should look forward to it. It's a passage, not a sad event. We're supposed to give our kids room to grow."
Written by Deborah Gaskill