10/19/2011 05:25 pm ET | Updated Dec 19, 2011

Empty Nest Pt. 3... See You In November!

We left off last May, looking ahead to the boy's First Summer Home Since College (Empty Next Syndrome...Coming Home). Before I could write a follow-up to the questions posed in that piece, the original entry in this series, My Very Cool Roommate Is Moving Out, was reposted, right around the time families were beginning that 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 reminded me of just how sharp the edges of this transition are, particularly for mothers, many of whom wrote wanting to know how did that first summer go? They wanted some hope to hold on to... Part 3 was in order!

There is no soft-pedaling the impact that first college exodus has on those who -- up to the moment of tearfully driving away from campus with one less person in the car -- were laser-focused on the departing 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've imparted about drugs, alcohol, responsibility and not risking life or limb in the name of freedom. You're wishin' and hopin' and thinkin' and prayin' that this love of your life will prove 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, they'll do fine with the cards in their hands.

But still... I know... First Year. It's tough.

So the boy came home 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. 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 summers previous. He was attached, warm, remarkably lovely and, by and large, unchanged from the boy who left the summer before. 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.

You know who changed? Me.

I didn't mean to. It didn't happen overnight, I didn't even notice when it did. I certainly wasn't planning on it; in fact, it seemed unfathomable. I wanted to hold on to the version of Mother/Child I'd had since his 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 -- it had literally become another version of itself.

This is what you discover: Your role as a mother is redefined. Your emotions shift. Suddenly the searing sense of losing something too precious to lose is replaced by a new paradigm that unconsciously flexes with the changing circumstances and fills the void. You still miss him, you still find his empty room a shock, but slowly 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 arrange your day around his schedule is replaced by 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 cherish the trips home and the visits to campus, but you gradually find your life is no longer a swirling eddy of focus on all-things child. You've gotten on with it... just as you should.

Sound cold? Make you feel even a little guilty, as one mother admitted? Shouldn't. It's evolution, plain and simple; Mother Nature doing her self-preserving thing.

Like pregnancy.

At about three months, 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 a few months from now and what 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 seven months I was calm; by nine I couldn't wait. It was then I realized how truly brilliant Mother Nature is, so wisely managing our evolution to assimilate, cope, and ready for the big changes in life. And just as we mothers are given nine full months (in most cases) to ramp up to the enormity of motherhood, the gestation period of the college chapter 18 years later is our chance 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.

And so we learn that each era of motherhood comes with its own job description, requiring fresh thinking and new responses. Each demands that we stay in present time and see our children as they are now, not as they were then. It's a natural transition yet it's stunning how we struggle with the awkwardness and fumbling discomfort of these changes. It's understandable, that struggle, but since the change is inevitable, we're wise to embrace the gift of these college years so generously offered by Mother Nature to get the hang of our new role. Before long, home won't feel like an empty nest anymore... it will feel like the place where a family is slowly but surely growing up together.

Have a great semester, sweetheart; do well on your midterms and we'll see you in November!