12/05/2013 09:47 am ET | Updated Feb 04, 2014

As Christmas Approaches, Our Children Return to Us

It's the first week of December and parents of college students know what that means: Our kids will be home for a while. For first-time empty nesters, this means preparing for the noise, chaos and mess that they missed so earnestly back in September. For those of us who have been through this before, it requires rearranging our busy lives to make room for the child we miss but are accustomed to living without. Amidst the bustle of holiday activities, this is a week of mixed feelings.

When I took my daughter to college in Philadelphia three years ago, she let me know with none too subtle hints when it was time for me to say goodbye and leave her to her new roommates. I got in the car and cried all the way to Wilmington, Delaware (about 45 minutes) until it occurred to me that I could shop at a large mall nearby. There was no urgency to get home. No homework to monitor, no laundry that had to be done immediately, no dinner I had to cook. The tears dried.

We raise our children to leave us, if we do it right. That's the end goal. Parents are in the business of helping our children become independent adults, and the first step begins soon after birth. Little losses for parents, big gains for our children. It rushes by in such a blur that one day many of us panic and wonder if we've imparted all the knowledge and skills that will keep them safe. And they certainly give us cause to wonder: missing a curfew, coming home drunk, procrastinating when college applications are due.

And then one day they are waving goodbye. They are settling in at college, or in their first apartments, or taking a gap year, or going off to work. Some of us react with relief, some of us with pain, most of us with both.

Winter break is a time when most of our children return home to us, laden with dirty laundry, long lists of high school friends they want to see and requests for home-cooked favorites. The children who return sometimes revert to the children who left, but they have changed. They are living lives that we can only guess about as we no longer recognize the entire roster of friends or professors. And they see their parents through the prism of young adulthood, holding us to new - and sometimes unreasonable - standards. The house that remained clean for three months fills with clothes and books and abandoned shoes. The refrigerator fills with unfamiliar foods for children who have discovered veganism or juicing or fiber or vegetables. The silence is pierced by ringtones and computers and music. The doorbell starts ringing and the young person at the door bears a vague resemblance to a child who used to sleep over at your house. You find yourself living in a world that is recognizable, but slightly off kilter. And messy and loud.

Then it's January. Once more you are waving goodbye to your child - at the airport or a dorm room or a train station or your front door. You worry until your child remembers to call or text or post on Facebook that he or she has arrived safely. So you clean up the mess and restore your house to its pristine nature. You put away the detritus left in your child's room and turn off the lights. You remember how much you love your new book group and maybe call some friends to meet you for dinner. You throw away the chocolate milk and tofu dogs and Frosted Flakes.

And you know that spring break will arrive in due time. That the peace and orderliness of your house will never feel as good as the chaos of a child coming home to you. You accept the little losses but you never quite make peace with them.