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Coping With Empty-Nest Syndrome

It seems only yesterday that my son, an only child, left for his first year at college, his car loaded down with the usual paraphernalia for his dormitory room. His mother and I followed close behind on the freeway, our car laden with food for a child who was surely going to starve while away from his mother, apprehension as to how he would manage in the outside world, and much love for the departing fledgling.

The campus was not new to us. Some months before, on an exploratory trip, we drove north from our home in southern California to this charming college town nestled in a green valley that boasts a view of snow-capped Mt. Baldy. My son's shiny-eyed approval on his initial visit to this jewel-like setting, and his delight with the concerned attention of staff and students he met paved the way for his formal entry into the unknown of academia.

We found the surroundings idyllic: ivy-covered buildings that could have been on eastern college grounds instead of in California. My son was assigned a large second-floor room in a coed dormitory with a window facing out onto a beautifully landscaped garden. Dormmates were helpful in welcoming us and unloading the boxes from both automobiles and trudging them upstairs. Hawaii was the home base of a clean-cut young man who my son was lucky to have as a roommate.

Bidding our boy goodbye, we went off to Parents' Day activities while he unpacked. There we attended a reception with other parents, staff and faculty; were given a guided tour of the campus; had lunch (the food was good!); and were greeted by the president of the college who enlightened us about campus life (e.g., "Your child will complain about the food"... and, he did!). We were also involved in a discussion about the school's academic programs, and were invited to join the receiving line for the President's Reception at the President's House. We were duly impressed that the astronomical tuition fee would be well spent; we felt our son would be in good hands. Fairly serene, we left for home.

Friends whose children have left the nest told us how different the atmosphere would be at home, but as in many other life situations, it must be experienced personally to be truly understood.

Who could know what it would really be like living in this house now? No one told me I would catch my wife standing at the threshold of our son's room, mesmerized by the loss of "her baby." My mind did flashbacks of when he was a small child: I remembered the time he brought home posters he had painted for her in the third grade, each one loudly proclaiming "I Love You"; and the time he handed her a birthday card addressed to "My Best Heart."

Back to present-day reality, I was delighted to be able to walk into my son's room without climbing over stuff on the floor. There was no loud music blasting away; no constant telephone calls from 17-year-olds to discuss their plans, thoughts, and actions; no slamming of the refrigerator door a dozen times a day to appease a bottomless appetite; no impromptu father-son talks ("Say, Dad, I'd like your opinion"); no bleary-eyed kid studying for exams to stop only long enough to come out of his room to hug his mother and inquire "What's for dinner?" The sound of the silence was deafening.

We kept in touch by phone and letters and he drove down for weekend visits. He told us he was making new friends and enjoying college life, although he would have liked it even better if he didn't have to work so hard. He did his laundry in facilities provided in the dorm (he proudly struggled not to bring any home for his mother to do... losing the battle occasionally); he and his roommate shopped and stocked their own refrigerator; he set his alarm to wake up in the morning rather than relying on someone else to urge him to get out of bed. He even got a haircut of his own volition.

So there we were, ensconced in an empty nest, missing our child's sweet disposition, his rollicking sense of humor, the warmth of his presence. Yet our "bird" was obviously happy flying under his own power... and I wonder if that isn't what parents are for?

Friends warned that our young man would not spend much time at home again. True. But macho-like, I would shrug off any allusions to his absence with, "Oh, well, with his car up at college with him, there's more room in our garage." What I didn't tell them was how proud I was of him in his quest for independence, in his ardent search for knowledge, in his various stages of growing up. Nor that he has thanked me for my constant support of his ideas, my understanding of his feelings, of being able to just talk with me to sound out some not-yet acquired beliefs, to discuss moral values. Most important, that I did not insist my way was right, but let him think for himself.

Apparently we weathered the empty nest stage okay. Just a few short years later at his graduation, when honors were bestowed on him, he turned to his mother and me and said, "I did it for you."


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