I've been collecting stories from fellow parents about the traumas of leaving a child at college. There's the one about the mother who sneaked back on campus to see her son one last time, only to find herself skulking around the hallway of his dorm like a spy in a grade B Cold War thriller. I could empathize. There was the father who couldn't sleep at night because he was worried that his son wasn't sleeping enough; the mother who couldn't bear to erase any phone message from her absent daughter; the parents who choked up every time they walked by the empty room that used to drive them crazy with its clutter and noise.
I've taken a lot of comfort from those stories because misery loves company, and I am dreading the moment Bill and I have to say goodbye to Chelsea at Stanford later this week. Oh, I know all about how great I should feel at her achievement and how excited I should be about the wonderful experiences that await her. But those are my mature moments. Most of the time, I'm wondering why I ever agreed to let her skip third grade.
So I've kept busy cross-checking the endless list of supplies college freshmen are said to need in their dorm rooms. I've cleared out closets and drawers; sorted, thrown out and given away clothes.
As far as Chelsea is concerned, she's ready to go; there's no doubt about that. Because Stanford starts much later than most schools, she has already heard from many of her friends about the excitement and adjustments of college life--from new roommates to professors who expect you to read 500 pages a night and which items should be taken along and which should be left at home.
The really important things any student takes to college, however, aren't packed in boxes and suitcases but in their minds and hearts. Like most mothers, I've busied myself worrying about trivia, like the color of her towels, when what I'm really concerned about is whether she'll make good friends, how she'll like her classes and whether she'll eat the right foods. Unlike every other mother, however, I have the added concern of security and privacy that go along with her being the president's daughter. Bill and I trust Chelsea to be off on her own, but we will no longer be able to shield her as we have tried to do while she was at home with us.
That is a problem I've thought a lot about in the wake of Princess Diana's death and the resulting concern about her sons. Neither my daughter nor the young princes chose their parents' circumstances. Like all young people, they are entitled to space and privacy. They deserve to be able to pursue their educations and navigate toward adulthood without the extra pressure of press and public scrutiny.
I am grateful that Chelsea has been largely spared unwelcome and intrusive press attention during the last 4 1/2 years. Once the American media understood that Bill and I were committed to protecting her privacy, they have--with very few exceptions--avoided any hint of stalking her or covering her outside of clearly public events that she participated in because of her father's role.
The media's sensitivity and responsibility have been enormously beneficial for my daughter, and she has had as normal a growing-up as is possible in the White House. She's been allowed to be a regular teenager, free to pursue her studies and interests largely without fear of interference. That's as it should have been. That's as it should be for William, Harry or the child of any public figure, who should be left alone to mature as sanely as possible. And that's how I hope it will be for Chelsea as she embarks on her college years.
I remember well my own college years--the good, the bad and the ridiculous. The dates that didn't work out; the late-night rushing back to the dorm before curfew--a relic of the distant past; the caffeine-fueled all-nighters during finals; the long walks through city streets or across campus that ended in a tender moment with a handsome new boyfriend. I can't imagine having any of those private experiences, all part of finding myself, being interrupted by the bright lights of cameras--and not because of anything I was or did but because of my parents' occupations.
I hope Chelsea's college years will be her own too. I pray that she and her friends will spend the next four years learning, discovering what is important to them, and moving closer to their hopes and dreams. Then I can go back to worrying about everything else that could go on at Stanford--from earthquakes to stolen bicycles.