I know how to convey home and love without ever saying a word...
Two days after my husband and I returned from taking our youngest son to college, 1,300 miles away, we were checking with each another constantly to see if he had communicated something... anything.
I knew from experience (our oldest is a junior in college) that making the shift -- to being the parent of a young adult who no longer lives in the same house -- takes some practice. You can't ask them about their day, every day -- about whom they met, what they learned, if they liked the movie they saw or the book they read -- and it hits hard. The first week, you go through withdrawal. It's like having had chocolate every day of your life, your entire life, and then not being able to have the tiniest taste. And you really love chocolate.
But they do communicate eventually, and much like learning to interpret a newborn's cries, you learn to read their moods based on their method of communication. Phone calls are for expressing extremes such as happiness or sadness, though occasionally they can be used for describing something so detailed it's just plain easier to say it on the phone. Emails are for forwarding other emails that are usually about money, or for giving a heads-up about something that occurs to them at 3:00 in the morning. Texts are for laundry questions and HAHA-type things -- which I must admit, I began to enjoy once I realized that HAHA does not mean someone is being sarcastic, but is actually smiling or laughing (and cooler than the LOL I had only just recently gotten used to).
When my oldest son first went away to college, I tried to ease the transition by sending him occasional text messages, and pictures of our dog, Benjamin. Sometimes I put a hat on him. Sometimes he was just Benjamin, doing what he does best -- sleeping or playing with his toys. Fortunately, the dog is wonderfully compliant, though he often looks at me as if to say, Seriously? And sometimes, he "disses" me -- looks away just when I snap the picture. This makes me laugh. And the photos of him doing this, doing anything, really, always inspire a HAHA reply from my son -- so much so that if I haven't sent a photo of Benjamin in awhile, he'll ask for one.
Of course, I know what his request for pictures of Benjamin mean, just as he knows what I mean when I send them. And that's the beauty of it -- nary a word has to be said.
Up until last week when he left for his freshman year at college, my youngest son only texted me when he was going to be late for dinner, needed $10, or forgot something at school.
But two days after taking him to college -- and pacing the floor a few million times, waiting for something, anything -- I received this text message:
Mom, when you have time today can you text me a picture of Benjamin?
I sent him two.
Gone is the detritus of your children's lives scattered here and there, carelessly flung about and forgotten. Your bathroom towels will stay hung neatly on their bars, the dishes are placed in the dishwasher instead of left to sit next to the sink. Beds remain made, floors remain clean, clothes are neatly put away. Mystery spills vanish, and you never wake up to a mess. Who knew it could be like this?
Some couples decide that it's time to separate and move on, others remember why it was they fell in love in the first place -- or find new reasons and ways to connect to each other. Without your kids, you become each other's only companion when you're at home. It can't be overstated how much of a distraction our kids are while they are growing up. This is probably the most jolting part of the empty nest -- when you look at each other and think, "Oh wow, it's just us now." For better or worse, it will happen.
No longer are you waiting for the sound of a key in the door, or the porch light to be turned off upon your children's safe return from another night out. No longer are you part of the day-to-day ups and downs of your children's lives ... no matter how often they may text/call/email/facebook message/tweet you. Their mental and physical well-being, though still hugely important to you, are their responsibilities now, and you no longer have the minutiae of their daily lives to think about like you did when they lived at home.
If your kids are in college, or even if they're not, you may still be paying for them to eat. But it's nice to go to the grocery store and come home with the things you want, and not have to buy all the things they want, things that you really don't want in your house.
Initially, this may be disturbing or difficult for you to deal with. You may want to do things you've missed -- museums, movies, theater, travel or you may not want to do much of anything at all. Whatever your thing is, there's now time to do it ... a lot of time.
No longer do you have to socialize with other parents because of your children's connections. No more booster club barbecues or committee meetings, making small talk with people you most likely never would have crossed paths with if it weren't for the fact that your children were on the same team/in the same class/part of the same group of friends.
Your children leave home and, for better or worse, they have to grow up, no matter how much help you may be giving them financially OR emotionally. There are just too many daily things to manage, too many random people to deal with, too many bumps and blips that they have to encounter on their own that leads to them, inevitably and sometimes painfully, growing up. It can be liberating when kids take over, driving or planning or explaining -- giving up some authority is in many ways a big relief.
There's nothing quite as wonderful as seeing your kids after weeks or months apart, especially when they first go away to college. Their faces are familiar and beautiful, their smiles just for you, their laundry ready to be washed...it's such a thrill to have them home for holidays, or summers, or a weekend visit. Within minutes of their return, it's as though they never left. You love having them home for a while, but then...
Remember before kids, when you would dream and plan for the rest of your life? Remember when it was wide open, and you had no idea what would happen next? Well, you can do that again, now that you're an empty-nester. No longer do you have to worry about childcare, or kids missing school, or whether they'll like the place you pick to go on vacation -- your time, your future, and your life is yours to create. Always wanted to travel? Now you can. Go back to school? Now's the time. Write a book? Get cracking. You have your life to live, just as they have theirs. Go do it!
Follow Melissa T. Shultz on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MelissaTShultz