Like some annual fall rite of growing up, Starting School -- be it kindergarten or college -- can leave both children and their parents suffering from what psychiatrists call separation anxiety.
"It's a continuum," says clinical psychiatric social worker and mother Emily M. Brown, "that starts when they first leave home and is repeated over and over again, with each leaving being one more step toward maturity and moving out for good."
"When my 18-year-old came home just the other night beaming because he had just signed up for six years of Navy submarine school, not only did tears come to my eyes, but as I read the legal papers he signed I kept having flashbacks to the very first day he left home for nursery shcool," says a 42-year-old Annandale mother with a full-time career.
"I saw a picture of him at barely 3 years old waiting for the nursery school bus, beaming and all excited with his new school clothes, just like a snapshot I still have.
"What really amazed me was the physical pain I felt, like something was being wrenched from my stomach, as if the umbilical cord were being pulled.
"He leaves soon, Sept. 26, and usually when kids go to college and they come home for weekends and holidays, the separation is more gradual. This sharp break and the legal commitment for six years is such an emotional blast." s
Pat Sheehy, a Cleveland Park mother of four, just returned from taking her oldest child, a girl, up to Cornell for her first year.
"All of us went, except the dogs, and we even had to rent a bigger car to fit us and all her stuff in, but what we couldn't get over was the influence her leaving had on the family personality. Finally our next oldest announced on the trip home, 'But I don't want to be the oldest.'"
Remembers Emily Brown, "How surprised I was when my son Neal first left home for college; I not only lost him, but all his friends who used to congregate here.
"He still fiercely wants his room left just the way it is, and nobody's to touch it."
Brown, director of the Divorce and Marital Stress Clinic in Rosslyn, cautions single parents (she is one herself) that unless they have their own lives together socially, they may have an extra hard time separating from their children and may even try to keep their kids home too long.
Dr. Carolyn Payton, Howard University dean for Counseling and Career Development, believes separation -- at any age -- might be even harder for middle-class blacks than for their white counterparts.
"They have an investment in that child that is very important to the ultimate reflection of the whole family, and they might be more protective.
"The parents feel they don't have the luxury of any behavior in their family that would allow questions of status, that they and their children have to be cleaner and more proper than the upper-class white kid who can hang around in jeans."
Payton, who vividly remembers crying herself to sleep her first year at college, suggests that new students stay on campus until after Homecoming.
"It's such an exciting time here, sort of a passage of rites, when students realize it's more important to feel like Howard University students than going home to be Mama's baby."
Dr. David Mills, assistant director of the University of Maryland's Counseling Center, agrees that parents should be supportive, but remain distant.
"It doesn't help when you go home a lot, because if you go home every weekend, you never do get involved in campus life. Students should be patient, not panic, and hold on until they can build their own support system at school. Unfortunately, the student who is homesick and lonely usually withdraw from other people and services like us."
"Too often, we lose them," adds Payton. "Their parents get sucked in and tell their kids to come home, and they leave school for good before we can even get to them.
"Sometimes they wander into our office saying they can't find Douglas Hall. If we listen well enough we realize that they've been calling home every night and need us."
Mills remembers one time a student collapsed in tears on the stairs in front of the couseling office. They discovered later she didn't even know why and didn't know what that office was, but just felt no sense of belonging on the huge (35,000 students) University of Maryland campus.
Froma Lippmann, an Arlington mother of two grown children and a parent-education consultant, says that the most crucial thing is to admit and allow anxieties.
"Give yourself permission to feel the anxiety; say it's okay. Just doing that will make the feeling less severe and not prolong it.
"My own son said he had butterflies about going back to camp this summer as a counselor, even after 12 years there," says the former kindergarten teacher. She suggests getting a child to discuss his anxieties with older children.
"Younger children, pre-schoolers," she adds, "aren't sophisticated enough to understand, and when you say, 'Mommy will miss you so much,' they feel guilty and might think they should stay home.
"Halloween is often the turning point, with such a colorful, exciting holiday celebrated at school. If they are still miserable, then you might consider changing schools or waiting another year."
And from a Reston kindergarten teacher, laughing last week as she prepared a colorful room for her new charges:
"Many of us are still experiencing separation anxiety, long after the beginning school years. My mother has been calling me long distance as much as two and three times a day this week because my brother, her baby and the last of four, has left this week to go to medical school. And he doesn't have a phone yet!"