I once owned a record with a song on it that began simply, "Parents are people, people with children . . ." If I can find it again, I'll send it right along to John Silber, the president of Boston University, for his collection.
You see, it was Silber who told the parents of 3,000 incoming freshmen last week that they'd better not go back to being people just yet. The man said in no uncertain terms: "Every one of our students deserves a parent who is not going through an identity crisis. It is time that America faces up to the implications of having too many people aged 40 and aged 50 asking questions that they should have answered when they were 17 to 25, namely, 'Who am I and what ought I to do?'"
No, the president wasn't going to let them off the hook just yet. "When you send your youngsters to the university, I hope that you will at least pass a four-year moratorium on that question . . . and stick with whatever it is you are doing until your son or daughter graduates."
His message to the parents of 400,000 college freshmen in America is a succinct one: Four More Years.
Now, don't misunderstand me. In the best of all possible worlds, I would assign two totally fulfilled, completed and contented adults to each child. It would be, as they say, swell. Not only do I think that every student deserves a parent who "isn't going through an identity crisis.
However, life being what it is, we are stuck with each other. The notion of telling parents to hang in there on the old-straight-and-narrow for the sake of children who are now pushing 20, or 22, is just a touch strange.
Silber seems to think that an identity crisis is something you should have - if at all - before you are 25. Once you've had it, you never have to worry about getting it again - sort of like the measles. You are supposed to find out once and for all, "who you are" and "what you ought to do" - and then go out and do it and be it until, presumably, you drop dead.
If you forget to have your identity crisis at the proper time, however, you're out of luck. It's just like the time you missed long division because you were out sick.
In real life, the problem with parents-who-are-people is that they (gasp!)change. Now this is a situation which, admittedly, their children would often like to arrest. But it's inevitable for all but the dreariest, most self-satisfied of grown-ups who go through life in a plastic capsule, protected from the infections of the world around them.
They would also have to be protected from children because, ironically, it's children who are the most powerful catalysts of change in their parents' lives. They arrive with a crisis - "Who am I - a me or a mommy?" - and they leave us with one - "What do I do with the rest of my life?" (Indeed, if Silber would like to prevent mid-life crisis, perhaps he should send the kids home - with their $3,850 in tuition, if you please.)
By the end of our time as parents, most of us are ready to move on. Adolescence becomes an endurance contest, and the most devoted parents - the sort who never miss a 6 a.m. hockey practice - are hanging on for dear life as their children casually say things like, "You're not going out looking like that are you, dad?"
At that point, the parents who have spent the last several years "postponing" don't see an empty nest ahead, but a full life. Suddenly they can drive their own car, work their own hours, make love with the bedroom door open, listen to their own music. They can change houses or roles, they can eat in peace or silence or both. They have gobs of time - including the time for an identity crisis.
The only people who avoid risk, who never face a crisis or two, are those who stop changing. They postpone their own lives - four more years here, four more years there - until they don't have them. They are the parents who never were, and never become, their own people.
And, by the way, you know who's the first to criticize the sacrificial parent? The first to pull away? You guessed it. The children.