So long, summer. Ready or not, here comes fall. “Back to School” ads stuff newspapers and mailboxes. Families roam the aisles of , and parents of graduating high school seniors contemplate the pros and cons of living in an empty nest.
Did their child pick the right college? Will they thrive? Or fall in with a rowdy beer-drinking crowd, sleep in and cut class? Will they miss us — but not too much? And the flip side: “What if we miss them too much?”
For me, worrying is a profession, not a hobby.
From the time our girls were little, when they left our house I would say, “Be sure to look both ways before you cross the street.”
“Yes, Mom,” they’d reply.
“Don’t talk to strangers,” I’d say. “Yes, Mom, we know.”
“Stick with your buddy – safety in numbers!” “We know, we know,” they would say, eyes rolling.
And my favorite, even from an early age, and in front of their friends the ultimate embarrassment: “Always practice safe sex.”
In my defense, you never know when that moment will come when they stop listening. So my advice is to say it often and weave it into their very fabric. Slip it in whenever possible: “Send a handwritten thank you right away. Call me when you get there. And always practice safe sex.”
You spend years shaping your children into the best possible people, and then worry that you won’t know how to let go when it’s time. Older children spend years hacking at your apron strings with blunt-ended scissors so that by the time they leave for college, for the most part, you would think you would be ready to see them go. But even so it’s a big shift in the household dynamic.
When we dropped our eldest, Sarah, off at UCLA, I didn’t know if I would be able to stand it. The drive up I-5 from Los Angeles to Alameda was one of the longest, saddest journeys of my life. But I rallied because we still had her younger sister at home, and we began giving Emily our complete and undivided attention. Like government spies, we grilled her for a complete recap of her school day and her action plans for upcoming homework assignments.
Several nights into this, she burst into tears at the dinner table and said, “I miss Sarah!” It wasn’t so much that she missed her big sister, but that she resented getting 100 percent of the parental focus. It was too much for her to take.
(Ok. I admit it. Sometimes I parent with a bit too much enthusiasm…)
Four years passed, Sarah graduated, got her first apartment, and it was Emily’s turn to leave for college. I was distraught. Then a friend with children ten years older than mine said, “Don’t worry, Alice. You get used to the empty nest. You start taking the time to yourself for granted, making you the priority after years of putting your children at the top of the list. Then they come back, maybe to visit or live for a while, and you realize your empty nest had become the new 'normal.'”
My friend was absolutely right. One daughter is launched and one is home again, living down in our basement with her fiancé. For the first time in four years, there are more dishes and laundry, less hot water and less time to myself.
But there are also bone-crushing hugs in the kitchen, and the occasional call at the office to say, “Hey, Mom – I’m going to to get groceries and I’ll fix dinner tonight.” It’s not bad. Once again, it takes getting used to, but we will.
So for those of you with college-bound kids, here’s what to expect: You help them pack, drop them at the dorm, maybe cry a little in the car up or down I-5, and then get back home.
At first, the empty halls might echo a bit. You may stand in a clean vacant room and sigh, staring at the much different space where chaos once reigned. It may take you some time to relearn how to cook dinner for two, but the tradeoff is peace, quiet, fewer loads of dishes and laundry, and subsequently lower bills from Alameda Power and EBMUD.
And if you just can’t stand the quiet or find some way to make yourself a priority, know that they may be back soon. If you’re lucky, you will always be a parent.
I still worry - absolutely. Will they find fulfilling jobs with dependable incomes and benefits? Will their spouses like me? And now that they’ve taken my advice all those years and practiced safe sex, will they know when it’s time to give me grandchildren?