11/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

When the College Kids Go Back, What's Left?

We were on our last trip up three twisty flights of dormitory stairs, me huffing and puffing with an odd assortment of filthy shoes in a plastic bin, my son hauling his amplifier, guitar and multiple garbage bags of clothing. (Boys are not girls when it comes to packing for college.)

"So," Blaise asked, "is it getting easier to say goodbye to us, Mom?"

"A little," I said.

To my credit, I did not burst into sobs and cling to his pant legs right there. Nor did I park my RV in one of the college lots until the campus police kicked me out, like one family I heard about. No, I simply waved goodbye and watched my son trot back to his dorm. He was already on his cell phone, happily immersed in college life within five minutes of arrival. I was remembering how he'd looked carrying a Ninja Turtles backpack to school on the first day of kindergarten.

I waited to cry until I got home. "Why are you so sad?" my husband asked, completely mystified. "You know they'll be back."

I couldn't answer that question. It really should be getting easier to say goodbye. After all, we have five kids, ages 12 to 22, and we're top-loaded: one graduated from college this spring, and we have three more in their sophomore, junior and senior years at universities here and abroad. This was College Exodus Week, a family tradition for the past four years.

I should have been dancing a jig, really. My husband and I lived a frat house life this summer, with our college kids and their friends hanging out at our house and making us sometimes feel like we were penned into our bedroom with raging steers all around. Huge sneakers littered our kitchen, the recycling containers bulged with empty bottles, music played 24/7, strange perfumes wafted down our hallways, and unexpected dinner guests kept appearing at our dinner table, many with tattoos and piercings in surprising places. We were always out of eggs and orange juice.

My mom muttered nightly about how the kids were taking advantage of us. "You're too good to them," she fretted. "That's why they're all here."

"I want them here," I told her. "I always want them here."

The thing is, I actually like living with my children. What I always have to adjust to when the college kids leave is the weirdness of a partly empty nest. It's like our entire family has to be reconfigured, and I still haven't figured out how to do that.

For instance, I have to remember to buy only one gallon of milk during our weekly odyssey to the grocery instead of three. I have to remind myself to leave the door open to the bedrooms, now that they smell less like the YMCA. And I have to stop baking cookies because I end up eating all of them. Even setting the table is tough: three people just doesn't seem like enough for dinner, much less a game of Chinese checkers. We rattle around like pebbles in a cup.

I'm trying to focus on the positive. I can concentrate on my job -- a good thing, since I'll be working until I'm 110 years old to pay off those tuition bills. I can sleep through the night without worrying about who's at what party. There's never a night where I have to traipse downstairs in my bathrobe and tell people to please, please turn down the TV/guitar amp/video games/giggling. Except for our youngest child, who just started middle school, my husband and I are almost alone.

But that's the rub, isn't it? When you're used to raising a loving family, the house feels huge and empty without it.