Empty drawer syndrome changes a family's life

September 19, 1997|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- ''I like to think of it as the empty drawer syndrome,'' says my friend, reaching for the right, light, touch.

She and her husband have just delivered their youngest to college and returned to a home that seems as neat as a stage set for a life they are no longer leading. Suddenly, storage space.

They have been transformed by time into a household the census bureau describes as a married couple with adult children. But is that still a family? What kind?

I tell her about the television ad in which a husband and wife dance around the kitchen, phone unhooked, deliriously happy to be making stir-fry dinner for two, now that the kids are gone. But for every moment of emancipation my friend feels, there is another moment or three when life seems abruptly downsized.

This week, the Clintons are following her well-worn route from home to dorm. This tight-knit trio is flying from D.C. to Stanford, from the nation's capital to The Farm, across three time zones and one phase of life.

Their Air Force One is not the average minivan, chock full of college clothes and computers. Nor is the big White House on Pennsylvania the average or emptiest of nests.

But it's their turn now for this rite of passage. It's their turn to move from full-time to part-time parenting. This mother and father will now go from hands on to hands on and off.

Chelsea Clinton, the freshman, seems by any stretch of the imagination, ready. The awkward 12-year-old who came to fame with a spotlight gleaming off her braces has become a gracious 17-year-old praised for, of all the abnormal things, her normalcy.

Her parents, criticized for every public move they make, are praised for this job well done. Privacy protected, a child unspoiled, a life as balanced as the ritual breakfasts they ate together, the time protected from prying or politics.

Now, right on schedule, these proud partners in her upbringing are expected to be accomplices in her leave-taking. Indeed the experts, lined up in fine formation to comment on the First Family, all warn about ''letting go.'' They talk about the loosening of strings, apron and otherwise, of parental ties that might bind. Too tightly. Suddenly, too tightly.

How odd this rite is. In the newspaper last week, a scientific study of the obvious, a ponderously named National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, said the teen-agers who stay out of trouble are those who stay truly connected to their parents. It was parents, not peers, that mattered the most.

Those of us who knew it all along, did it all along. Up to the last school play, the final admissions essay. But then the 12-year-old is a 17-year-old, the teen-ager in her room becomes the student in her dorm. And now we are told to let go.

The president-father facing a separation as wide as the country said: ''Planes run out there and phones work out there. E-mail works there, so we'll be all right.'' And they will.

But this is not some one-day transfer of power. It's a long and ambiguous phase of family life. A time when the young adult wants to be on her own, until the inner child calls home. A time when parents are expected to be on call, but cannot put their lives on hold.

My friend laughs about the possibility of opening a detox center for parents going through withdrawal. What do you do with the part of you that still listens for the car in the driveway? What happens to the expertise acquired, not easily or quickly, in the subject of your own child?

What about the fierce responsibility that began the moment an ** infant's cry pierced your sleep? And then of course, there is love.

Balancing act

This rite of passage is part of the great American balancing act between independence and connection. Between the culture and the psyche. Between the expectation that we raise our children to lead their own lives wherever that takes them -- and the unavoidable hope that it won't take them truly away. It is a tricky act to perform, and there's no safety net.

As a veteran of this rite, I tell my friend lightly that Thanksgiving comes sooner than you think, that sleep comes easier than it did. There is indeed e-mail, the phone does work out there.

And at the end of the long process, if it goes well, parents and children are adults connected by choice as well as history. It's only the drawer that's empty.

Ellen Goodman writes a syndicated column.

Pub Date: 9/19/97

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