I’ve been to 26 graduations in my 47 years on this Earth. That includes 16 ceremonies I’ve attended for students, 4 of my own, 2 of my husband’s and two each for my children. That’s a whole lot of pomp under a whole lot of circumstances. I’ve participated in ceremonies held in a rodeo arena where my heels got lost in the sawdust, a concert arena that seated 10,000, a cathedral-like church, and everything in between. Despite the venue, an unmistakeable air of tradition and respect pervaded the atmosphere. Graduation ceremonies – despite the occasional cow bell or bull horn – elicit a feeling of grandeur as regally-robed participants process toward a school official who with one handshake sends this silent message:
This end, this thing that you’ve worked so long and so hard for, is really just preparation for the real work that’s about to begin.
As parents watching our children graduate, we know this, which is why graduations are the very definition of bittersweet. We are proud of our children’s accomplishments because they are also our own accomplishments. Graduation says we did something right. We got our kids through school. We gave them the tools they needed to find success. We supported them when they needed it and made them accountable for their own learning when they didn’t want to be. So when we cry tears of joy, we are happy not only for their good decisions and hard work, but also for the part we played in raising them into fine young men and women.
Our tears also hold sadness, however. We are sad that an important stage of our children’s lives is over. We are sad that they must now grow up and be exposed to the adult world without our protection or the safe haven we have provided them. We are sad that reality will demand much from them – pursuing a college degree, fostering a career, paying bills, leaving childhood behind. We are sad that they are doing exactly what we hoped they would – leaving us. Moving on. Moving out.
Graduation – heck, parenthood – is painful. It swells the heart and crushes it at the same time. It is endings and beginnings and regret for what is lost and excitement for what is to come.
So as someone who has experienced an inordinate number of graduations, let me offer some advice as you prepare yourself for your children’s next steps. Are you ready?
1. Try not to cry.
That’s really the only advice I have to give. It ruins your makeup and makes your face splotchy, which you will lament years later when you revisit the graduation photos. And on a much more serious note, it makes your kids uncomfortable. They hate to see their parents cry, especially on what is supposed to be a happy occasion. They need graduation to be about them, not about you. They need you to beam with pride and joy and complete confidence that they are absolutely ready for the next stage of their life. It really is all about the tone you set at this point, and you must convey a tone of positivity and the full belief that your children are about to be even more amazing, even while you secretly die a little inside.
Once you’ve accomplished that, and your graduate has gone off to a party or gone to bed for the night, have a good cry. Let it all out. Feel every emotion of pride, heartsickness, relief, worry, and love. Then pull yourself together and start strategizing. Because you’ll have to hold it together again and again, with every bump they encounter and every landmark they reach, for the rest of your life.
That’s what parents do. Congratulations, Mom and Dad. You done good.