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"We're not affluent," Witherspoon says. She was a stay-at-home mom when her children were young, and her husband was a fireman. When she'd talk to people who were wealthier, she says, "I found that they were always getting their name out there and meeting people so they could call on them later. I think that being a member of the African-American community, that's not something we necessarily have—an understanding of networking."

Her children complain that she gets on their nerves sometimes, but Witherspoon thinks her involvement has helped their transition to independent adulthood. Her oldest daughter just graduated from Tennessee State University with a degree in electrical engineering and got a job with Boeing. "On her own," Witherspoon says.

Lynn Yale, 55, works as a special ed teacher with high school students in Santa Clarita, California. She acknowledges she might be spoiling her sons by traveling an hour and a half to do their laundry, but she feels college has become such a pressure cooker that "everything needs to be done in a certain amount of time at a certain level." So doing their wash is a small way she can help her two sons, who both take 15 to 18 credits a semester. Her efforts aren't entirely for the boys, she admits. "I really enjoy their company," she says. "I miss them." She's agreed to pay her youngest son's cell phone bills—if he uses it to call her once a day.

Robyn Lewis, 56, who raised her two sons after divorcing their father 19 years ago, takes full advantage of the ability to cyber-attach. The Fort Lauderdale, Florida, college recruiter often starts her mornings by turning on her computer and logging on to the linking bank accounts she shares with each of her sons, Ethan, 24, and Brendan, 22. "My significant other says he can tell when Brendan has spent too much money," Lewis says. "He'll say, 'You go, Sh-damn, and switch to e-mail mode, and I hear the keys clicking, What's this $60 at Café Bola?'"

After checking what her adult sons have been spending, Lewis e-mails each a to-do list for the day. "I have access to their college e-mail passwords, so I know what grades they're getting and if a teacher has e-mailed them because they missed a class. I can say, 'Hey, what happened? You didn't meet with your adviser yesterday.' Or 'I notice you're missing a quiz in psych.' I know almost every minute detail of their lives." Once a month, Lewis drives two and a half hours each way to clean Ethan's dorm kitchen, buy his groceries—eggs, orange juice, etc.—and take care of his laundry. (Brendan is in school 3,000 miles away, or she'd do the same for him.) Lewis says she does it so Ethan can get extra sleep, but she acknowledges that she helicopters at least in part for herself. "I get a sense of control—of something. You can't change politics. You can't change the environment. But you can create something really terrific with your own children."

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