Surviving the empty nest

Rumford Falls Times
September 9, 2009

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I drove our son to college to start his freshman year. We helped him unpack and get settled in his room, met his roommates, and checked out the dormitory laundry facilities.

We listened to the dean of first-year students explain all the ways in which the college would help him to stay happy, safe, and well-adjusted.

We reaffirmed that he was more than ready for this step, that it was the natural next phase in his journey toward independence and adulthood. We reflected on his amazing personal growth over the past few months and reassured each other that he was exactly where he needed to be. We congratulated him for making the perfect college choice, one that seems to suit him in every way.

We left him chatting amiably with his roommates, looking forward to the upcoming orientation activities and the start of classes in a few days. On the way to the car, we told each other how wonderful everything seemed, how much at ease he was, how good we felt about everything.

Then I cried all the way home.

For the first time in our 20-year marriage, our nest is empty, and there’s no getting around it: we’re going to miss him.

Our son is the fourth and youngest child, the “ours” part of our “his, mine, and ours” family. I’ve been a mom for 26 years—almost my entire adult life—and since my husband and I each came into this marriage with kids, we’ve never actually lived alone together.

Our three daughters, all in their mid- to late-twenties, have been gone from the nest for a long time now. For the past six years, it’s been just the three of us, and I have to say, it’s been a wonderful time.

In spite of everything I’ve heard and read about the horrors of raising teenage boys, and at the risk of sounding smug, let me just say that our son has been the kind of kid every parent dreams of having.

He’s smart, funny, well-adjusted, and adept at balancing an active social life with time spent entertaining his doting parents.

We’ve nearly always known where he was, and when we didn’t, he never gave us a reason to worry that he might be getting into trouble.

And somehow, without us even being aware it was happening, he went from being the baby of the family to one of our favorite young adults.

Like I said, we’re going to miss him.

One of my daughters called the day after we took him to school, just to see how I was doing.

“I’m OK,” I told her. “I’m sure I’ll get used to it. I’m going to try to think of ways to fill up my time until I do. Maybe I’ll sign up for a yoga class, or redecorate the bathroom. Or maybe I’ll dig out my sewing machine and make a quilt, or some curtains, or some new clothes.”

“Mom?” she said. “We’re all kind of worried that you might not be able to deal with the empty nest. We’re afraid you might start dressing the dog up in silly outfits or something.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “I’m going to be fine.”

After a few days, I stopped crying every time I picked up a stray dirty sock from under my son’s bed, or caught a glimpse of his abandoned high school ski jacket hanging from the bedpost.

After a week, I went grocery shopping and asked the clerk if she was sure about the amount of the bill—about half what I had been used to spending.

Last weekend, I set aside a day to do laundry and had it all done by mid-morning.

But I still miss him.

Like my son, I was the last one out of the nest when I left for college in the mid-1970s. Back then, my mother had two options for staying in touch with me: write a letter (which would take two or three days to get from Connecticut to Maine, then might languish in my campus mailbox for another two or three days before I got around to checking my mail), or call me on my dorm room extension (which might be answered by me, but more likely by my roommate, a random floormate passing by our door as the phone rang, or no one at all, since I was seldom actually IN my room).

In this age of advanced technology, however, it’s going to be a lot easier for me to keep tabs on my son. I can call him on his cell phone, or send him an email. I can send him a text message, and I suppose if I really wanted to figure out what Twitter is all about, I could send him 140-character “tweets.”

Perhaps most horrifying of all (to him), I can post messages to his Facebook page, where I can also see what other people are posting there. I can look at the names and photos of all of his new Facebook friends and wonder which ones are nice kids and which ones might try to lead him astray. (And who are all these new girls?!)

I’ve read a lot of advice for empty-nesters, and all the experts say parents should give their kids plenty of space. “Wait for your child to contact you first,” they say.

So I’m doing my best to let my son set appropriate boundaries, to let him decide how much contact he needs with us. It’s hard, but I’m trying, because what I want most—really!—is for him to complete the process of becoming a happy, healthy, well-adjusted adult.

But I can still post a few photos on Facebook to remind him of home, right?

Last night I posted a photo of my homemade pizza (trust me, it’s to die for)…just to remind him that, while his college’s dining hall food may be ranked second in the country (a big factor when he made his choice), Mom’s cooking will always be best.

And I can’t wait to hear what he thinks when I post a photo of the dog in his new raincoat and matching boots.

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