We left off last May, pondering the details of the First Summer Home Since College (Empty Next Syndrome…Coming Home); questions abounded as to how it would all go and how the family would or wouldn’t settle into the familiar but clearly altered paradigm of the family system. There was much anticipation and excitement and I was too knee-deep in the experience to write about it at the time. However, by end of summer I was reminded by several inquiring readers that I hadn’t actually answered my own question: how did that first summer home go? It seems Part 3 was in order.
I re-posted the original entry in this series, My Very Cool Roommate Is Moving Out, earlier this past summer, somewhere around the time when families everywhere were slowly beginning the dreaded/anticipated rite of passage called Changing Our Family System For the Rest Of Time…or, to put it less hyperbolically, Our Child’s First Year Away At College. Given that I was now a Second Year Parent and looking at it from the other side of the chasm, the many responses I got to the re-post reminded me of just how sharp the edges of this transition are, particularly for mothers, and there is no soft-pedaling the impact it has on those who, up to the moment of driving away from campus with one less person in the car, were laser-focused on the now-missing Boy or Girl.
It’s brutal for some, heartbreaking for many, and certainly a significant life-change for all. You’re handing your singlemost precious entity over to the great big world, out from under your roof, your care, your passionate supervision. You’re trusting in cafeteria food and campus clinics. You’re putting faith in everything you imparted about drugs, alcohol, being responsible and not risking life and limb for the heady freedoms of college living. You’re wishin’ and hopin’ and thinkin’ and prayin’ that this love of your life will prove resilient and smart enough to flourish and survive without your management skills and with the ones you taught them. It feels like an unbelievably high-stakes crapshoot but ultimately we know it’s a stacked deck — in our favor. You did good getting them there and they’ll do fine with the cards in their hands.
But still….I know…First Year. It’s tough.
So the boy came home in May. After nine months away, he arrived with bags and boxes, too much facial hair, a bonsai that survived the dorm, and a big, fat smile that told me how happy he was to be home. I felt my shoulders relax, my heart calm and something inside me welled up at the realization that he was still my kid, my boy, the person I most adored. Once he was unpacked and the room resembled the hurricane debris field so familiar from the high school years, I knew it was on. Summer After the First Year of College.
And lo and behold…it felt exactly like all the summers previous. Except for the summer job focus (which didn’t turn out as well as expected through no fault of his own), the days were filled with late, lazy mornings, times with the Girlfriend (high school GF amazingly sustained through the First Year Away), an admirable stint building houses with Habitat for Humanity, glorious beach days with friends, disc golf and card games with the crew, family gatherings and dinners, one or two movies with Mom, and those golden moments of just sitting together on the couch sharing Internet discoveries, working on websites, or watching favorite TV shows (those moments, from my point of view, were too few, but, oh, they were precious). For many unavoidable reasons we couldn’t manage the usual Family Trip Away, the only time and place we get him all to ourselves, but we enjoyed the time we had. He was attached, warm, remarkably lovely and, by and large, unchanged from the boy who left the summer before.
You know who changed? Me.
I didn’t mean to. It didn’t happen overnight, I didn’t even notice when it did happen. I certainly wasn’t planning on it; in fact, it seemed unfathomable. I kinda wanted to hold on to that version of Mother/Child attachment I had, the one that carried over from birth to that gut-wrenching moment we first left him on campus. But like any state of being – the anger you can’t sustain after a days-old fight, the excitement that lessens after weeks on a new job; the grief that ultimately diminishes at some point after a loss – that Mother/Child attachment and the loss felt at letting it go does shift and change…until it literally becomes another version of itself.
Your role as a mother is redefined; their role as the child is as well. Hell, even your role as a person melds and molds into something different. Suddenly the grief and the searing sense of losing something too precious to lose is replaced by new paradigms that unconsciously take into account the changing circumstances and life fills in the void. You still miss him, you still find his empty room a bit of a shock, but slowly over time the days are filled less with thinking about what he’s doing and more about what you’ve got to get done. Projects shelved until “later” become front burner, the dining room table becomes less about meals and more about framing those prints you’ve wanted to get up since last year. The knee-jerk impulse to pack a lunch, ask what time he’ll be home, or arrange your day around his schedule is replaced by first-morning thoughts of finishing the garden, getting to yoga or meeting your old work-mate for lunch. It’s gradual, it’s ever-so-subtle but like good therapy, it’s a seamless, ephemeral transition only noticed in retrospect. You continue to love the phone calls, the texts, and Skype chats; you relish planning the trips home and the visits to campus, but you gradually find your life is no longer a swirling eddy of focus and attention on all-things child. The fact is, you’ve gotten on with it…just as you should.
By the time summer was over and he left for Year Two, I felt the expected twinge as he drove away (got there on his own this time!), but not much of one…certainly not like last year. I was now confident that he’d essentially be the same person when I saw him next and, frankly, I needed to get the sheets done and on with my incredibly busy day.
Sound cold? Make you feel even a little guilty, as another mother admitted? Shouldn’t. It’s evolution, plain and simple; Mother Nature doing her self-preserving thing.
When I was about three months pregnant, I remember looking into the empty room that was to be his, overwhelmed with a feeling of, “Oh, dear God, there’s going to be a person, an actual living person in there in a few months and what the hell do I know about taking care of an actual person who’s going to non-negotiably LIVE with me for the next couple of decades??!” It was science fiction, that’s how strange and unimaginable it seemed at the time. And yet, by eight months I was calm and ready to get on with it; by nine I couldn’t wait. It was then I realized how truly brilliant Mother Nature is, the way she so wisely manages our evolution to assimilate, cope, and ready for the big changes in our lives. And just as we mothers are given nine full months (in most cases) to ramp up to the enormity of the task we’re taking on, the gestation period of the college chapter 18 years later is our time to learn how to successfully let go and move beyond that first incarnation of the job. The Motherhood Bookend, if you will. Bringing Them Home then Letting Them Go. There’s a sad but sweet symmetry there.
A woman named Patricia wrote me after reading Part 1, sharing her story and stating that, indeed, family and friends had assured her things would ultimately change for the better but, on some level, she didn’t really believe they ever would. Her grief at letting go of her precious son was aching and palpable and so reminded me of my own story. I remembered feeling, like her, that no one could fully understand the agony of my experience and it was impossible to believe it would ever feel natural or right. I wondered how other families – who’d clearly survived the transition – had managed to do so when I felt like a death had occurred. The gravity of Patricia’s pain and heartache very much resonated with me so I write Part 3 to honor her journey, to acknowledge and recognize what she is going through, but to also assure her — from a very authentic, been-there/survived-that place — that, just as family and friends assured, it truly and resolutely does get better.
You will look back at some point and realize the truth of that and be ever so grateful for the evolution. It will allow you to redefine your role with your child, to come up with new formulas for how to be the Best Mother You Can Be to an Almost-Adult Child, leading to the Best Mother of a Fully Adult Child when that time inevitably arrives. They’re each different job descriptions, different paradigms; they require fresh thinking and new responses. They demand that we stay in present time with our children and see them as the people they are now, not the person they were then. It seems so simple and expected but it’s stunning how many families struggle with the awkwardness and fumbling discomfort of these changes. It’s understandable, that struggle, but since the changes are inevitable, it’s advisable to get a jump on it! Take the gift of these college years, so generously offered by Mother Nature, to slowly but surely learn the parameters of your new role. By the time you actually get to their Fully Adult part, when they’ve moved into their own home, are paying their own way and struggling with their own transitions into their new roles as independent men or women, you’ll have a tremendous head start, ready and able to help them through it all. And they’ll need it!
So until then, I’m swimming in writing projects, finally getting my photography website slowly but surely built (more on that later!), rehearsing with a new band, enjoying my stepdaughter and her family, making time for those power walks and trying to squeeze in a movie or two with my husband. As for my Second Year Son? He’s doing great in school, loves his new off-campus apartment, is reveling in the Ultimate Frisbee team he joined and continues to enjoy the GF and various crews he’s accrued. He’s happy so I’m happy. It’s been a good second year so far for all of us…see you in November, sweetheart!
P.S. This will likely be the last of the series. There will be other transitions to wrangle, new ups and downs as life is wont to throw us, but I do believe the “Empty Nest” chapter of my life has concluded. Because regardless of what else happens, it doesn’t feel like an empty nest around here anymore…it just feels like the home of a family that is slowly but surely growing up together. I wish you all the same.
All photos courtesy of Lorraine Devon Wilke
To read the entire series, click below:
• Empty Nest Pt 1: My Very Cool Roommate Is Moving Out…
• Empty Nest Pt 2: Empty ‘Next’ Syndrome…Coming Home
• Empty Nest Pt. 3: See You In November!
•Empty Nest Pt. 4: He’s Leaving Home AGAIN… Bye Bye
• Empty Nest Pt. 5: It’s a Wrap… Well, Almost
• Empty Nest Pt. 6, the Final Chapter: With Keys In Hand, He Flies…
Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.