Commencement

Still think graduation day is all about the kids?

The summer after our oldest graduated from high school, my husband got a new job and we moved to San Francisco from suburban L.A. I remember hearing the news and thinking, “But what about winter break? Where will she come home to?”

Of course, she came home to our new house, which felt for a long time like someone else’s. Someone old! With kids in college! I felt so emotionally upended that I could only assume the move had done it; what I didn’t know then is that no kid is an island when it comes to graduations. One teenager moves on and even the pets feel it. It took time, but our new lives came to suit us. And by the end of our child’s first year as a university student, she wasn’t the only one who had changed.

Our middle child’s graduation was less dramatic. By then we had moved again, to Laguna Beach. There was lunch, maybe a toast, but generally less fuss than with the first one’s commencement. She didn’t cry when we said goodbye at her dormitory; on the way home, we congratulated ourselves on our mastery of teenage transitions.

But back home, it was as if there were a pool of unspent energy in her empty bedroom, intensifying every interaction I had with our third and last child. Laissez-faire in the past, I suddenly was on that kid like Alfred the Butler on Batman. Schoolwork, friends, sports—I leaned in on our poor, youngest daughter until, with a relief I can only imagine, she announced that, yes, as expected, she had managed to get into college.

That’s when it occurred to me that no one my age should know this much about who hooked up with whom last weekend. And that maybe my teenagers weren’t alone in transitioning.

Cap-and-gown season is big in Orange County. We worship at the Church of the Good School District. We make an extreme sport of parenting. Grad nights, senior trips, embossed graduation announcements—no option is spared for our kids’ rite of passage.

Less celebrated are the passages of the parents, the ways in which our kids’ milestones trigger our own changes. This month, for every sky full of tossed mortarboards, there’ll be a crowd of mothers and fathers whose identities also will be in for some adjustment. What will they do next? Who’ll tap their energy?

Even now, some probably are peeking into the void, straining for a glimpse of the career they finally can resume, or the trips for two they finally can take, or the 25-year-old joint they finally can fish out of their underwear drawer and fire up the next time that documentary on The Eagles plays on cable.

And like our children, we look to our next stage, and like our children, we wish we could know whom we’re destined to become before we become it. Of course, we can’t. When our oldest was in high school, I expected to spend the rest of my life in a ranch house a mile from my in-laws. I’ve had six addresses in 13 years, and I’m still moving. Commencement just keeps on commencing. “Pomp and Circumstance” has no last verse.

If I had wisdom to dispense, this would be it: Change comes. And when it does, it comes not just for the child but also for the parents. So hang onto your caps and gowns, Class of 2013. This won’t be the last time you graduate.

Illustration by Brett Affrunti

This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue.