09/28/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

How To Feel Full With An Empty Nest

Q: I just dropped my oldest son off at college. We all drove up to Vermont together - his dad, me, and his two adoring, younger sisters (ages 14 and 16). They went everywhere with him. They loved being with him when he met his new roommate. They loved checking out the library with him. They loved getting a hamburger at the student union. While they were all doing that, his father and I got his room ready. We cleaned it up and bought him bedding, towels, lamps, etc. Then we cried! Our baby is leaving our happy family. I know I still have two children at home, but this is the beginning of the end. I will soon have an empty nest.

Okay, I can hear what you will say to me. "How wonderful that our son has been raised in such a supportive environment. How wonderful that he has been given the sense of security necessary to move on to the next stage of life. How wonderful that he is being allowed to grow and perhaps to falter on his own." I should be proud of our achievements as parents. I should be ready to watch him as he grows, finds his way, and lives a full life.

So, why am I so miserable?

A: Well you sure think you know what I am going to say - and, not to disappoint you, let me get to that first. First, I'm supposed to say that this is moment of celebration. You have raised your child successfully and he is now ready to fly off on his own. This is a moment from the Discovery Channel, or some such thing -your little starling is ready to fly away. Maybe some triumphal music would help.

Forget it! I don't think I ever got over my kids leaving home. In fact, I have long bemoaned the fact that I did my job too well. Sometimes I think that I should have raised them to be less independent, more insecure. That way, they would still be hanging around all the time and I, while pretending (and knowing) otherwise, would be happy. I've had several careers in my life - publishing, movies and for a long time now, clinical psychologist with a demanding private practice - but through it all, my one overriding profession, the thing I always did, enjoyed and the one that took precedence over all the others, was being a mother.

My children are almost middle age, but I still look back nostalgically at the wonderful times when we were a family unit, when I was the PARENT, and when life was defined by our activities together. So don't ask me to join that chorus of TV shrinks who will tell you to go whoopee at what's happening. Of course, you're going through the beginning of something that can be exciting, fun and fulfilling. But it's also the end of something -and that something, at least for me, was the most important thing in my life.

Now, let's get to your specific situation. Your nest is far from empty -- but its furniture is now going to be dramatically rearranged. Your family will no longer have the same rhythm. For a large chunk of the year, your son will be away. The family that sits down to dinner is going to have different dynamic. Your son will be missing. Your daughters' brother will be missing. You husband's son will be missing. It's going to be different.

At times, what you think - what you will expect - of as your old family will reconvene. It will seem like old time - but just for a while. You'll hear some of the familiar jokes and banter, but actually your daughters will have become accustomed to their brother being gone. He's no longer the number one child at the table -the first born, the only boy. Your daughters have moved up.

As for your son, he's changed, too. He's become used to more private time. He's got new friends - people you've never met -and with them he's assumed and experimented with new identities. These are people who have not know him since birth..or the fourth grade.. or whatever. He's new to them. They're new to him. He can be who he says he is. Let's just hope he learns - and says - who he really is.

So, you now have a new job. You are the mother of three new people. They will require new things from you. They will need you to be wise about the new experiences and feelings that they are having. They will need you to guide them as they explore a new path for themselves individually and, together, as a family. You have my permission to mourn the old role that you had - cherish those memories! -- and you can move on to the next stage for you and for your family. This sounds like a cliché and I have said it before, but "Life is a series of little lives." You are onto the next little stage of your life. Enjoy this new one, because soon this one will be over as well and then you will be missing it, too.

Your question had another aspect that caught my interest. You described how you kids did all their activities together on your son's first day at college. Do you think of your three kids as a unit? Do you think, in other words, that if one drops out, it destroys the whole - that even though there are still two daughters at home, the dynamic has been changed and in fact ruined in some way?

You may need to begin to think of the children not as a unit, but as three separate individuals. They can enjoy each other as a family unit. They can even enjoy each other in their own one-on-one interactions. But they also need to be searching for their individual identities. If you think of them as a unit, they don't have the benefit of your observations and of your wisdom as they search for their own separate paths. Your son is off on his own --at least until Thanksgiving -- but your daughters still need your constant parenting.

I am not here to take away your misery, or to tell you that it is different from now on, or even to convince you that you will feel better by focusing on all the positive aspects in your life of which there are many. I am actually here to tell you that what you are going through is not just something sweet, but a transition that's upsetting -as are all transitions. But, the one positive note I can give you? Your nest is nowhere near empty. Kids don't truly leave your home until they have their own home.