Parents feel the 'void' as college starts

September 11, 1993|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Staff Writer

As 18-year-old Na'Ima Perkins flew from Kansas City to begin her college career at Johns Hopkins University, her mother, Jacqueline, took to her bed.

She was in deep despair over the departure of her sixth and last child from home.

"It's terrible," says Mrs. Perkins, 48. "I had to go to bed and stay there all day."

The next day, she had recovered enough to get up and compulsively paint her living room a pale gray.

"I thought it needed it, but nobody else thought so," she explains, chuckling at her own behavior.

Ms. Perkins, like many other parents dealing with the departure of their college-age children, is groping to chart out a new life in a suddenly empty home. While the new students have a generally structured life waiting for them on campus, many parents are not quite sure what to do with their new-found freedom.

"I know intellectually that there are things for me left to do," she says. "I have time for myself now. But also I just feel like there is a tremendous void."

"I don't feel like anybody needs me anymore."

Parents have 18 years to prepare for the moment when their babies trundle off to college. But that doesn't make it any easier.

"It's a real societal rite of passage," says Susan T. Kitchen, vice president for student affairs at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. "It's the start of a new way of life for them. Sometimes they're very excited -- you get to use the bathroom when you want it. But parents approach it with mixed feelings."

Lynne Bluestein's feelings about this stage in her life are mostly not good.

Last month, Mrs. Bluestein, of Germantown in Montgomery County, drove her son, Marc, back to the University of South Florida. Then last weekend, she and her husband, Ira, drove the 40 miles up to Catonsville to drop off Jamie, their youngest child, for her freshman year at UMBC.

Their comfortable townhouse northwest of Washington suddenly seems terribly empty.

"I think the quietness is probably going to drive me insane," Ms. Bluestein says.

"So many years you have them around and everything you do revolves around the family. Then all of a sudden: Ta-Da! They're gone."

Dorothy Sheppard, director of residential life at Johns Hopkins University, says she has noticed more parents lingering around campus for four or five days as their children get oriented.

"You see the students don't want to associate with their parents, but the parents kind of hang out," Ms. Sheppard says. "They ask a lot of questions, but a lot of the questions are pretty basic and I think they know the answers. But it gives them an excuse to stay."

Ron Hubbard, a Baltimore policeman and single father, left his only child, Tyrone, at Goucher College recently.

"It upsets me. I wake up and he's not here," he says.

"I've got my friends. I guess I've got to go out and live it up," he says half-heartedly.

Mr. Hubbard, 43, was divorced not long after Tyrone was born, and Tyrone grew up with his mother in Los Angeles. Two years ago he decided to come to Baltimore to live with his father and the two became buddies. They fished and crabbed together, rode horses, and Tyrone worked with his father in his moonlighting catering business. The two were so close, Tyrone says, that he actually enjoyed having him visit at high school.

Every school day for two years, Mr. Hubbard prepared breakfast for his son -- heaping portions of French toast, eggs, bacon. Monday, the first work day since Tyrone went off to school, Mr. Hubbard was alone at breakfast.

"I think it's working in reverse," says Mr. Hubbard. "A lot of time a kid goes away to school. The kid calls after three or four weeks and says, 'Come get me.' But I'm the one who's going to be at a loss."

By contrast, Diane Jaranyi has been quite calm about the recent departure of her oldest child, Benjamin, who also enrolled at UMBC last weekend.

"He's a keep-to-himself type kid," says Mrs. Jaranyi, of southern Anne Arundel County. "I think it's going to be really good for him." More traumatic was his 18th birthday earlier this summer. "That made me feel old," she says.

The real hard day will come when she takes her youngest child, her 10-year-old daughter, to college. "Now that's going to be a whole different story," she says. "I'll probably be suicidal."

In Montgomery County, Mrs. Bluestein, 45, and Jamie spent the last two weeks together in a giddy preparation for college -- going out to dinner, hitting the malls to buy pillows and blankets, and going to the movies.

Jamie, a poised 18-year-old with shoulder-length black hair, couldn't bear the idea of going too far from home. Baltimore was exotic enough.

"It's a whole different area. I feel like I'll be away," she says. "But if I'm sick or want something, it's still close enough that I can come home. Or if I need to see Mommy, she can come see me."

While Jamie is now sharing a small dorm room with a roommate from Pasadena, Mrs. Bluestein is spending a lot of time alone since her husband works nights.

"I'm going to come home to basically an empty house for the first time."

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