You've taken them to band practice, football and soccer games, and countless other activities. You've stayed awake waiting until they arrived home after a party, and prayed the first night they soloed in the car. You carpooled and counseled, consoled and scolded, refereed and reminded, you provided shelter and security and now suddenly that roller coaster you've been on for years has slowed down, or has altogether come to a screeching halt. Parents will admit that raising children today means living in the fast lane, never stopping to catch your breath, often being completely immersed in their children's lives on a daily basis. Then, that long anticipated day arrives: the milestone which parents have financially and physically prepared for, when their children head off to college. Suddenly their household number decreases, or they are left alone for the first time in years. Although the years of juggling activities and schedules have been at times stressful, they have also been your routine, your weekend plans, and often, your social life. It's been the essence and the fabric of your life. Roughly 13 weeks have gone by since area high school grads and upper classmen headed off to college. With a majority of them going to schools more than 100 miles away. But has it been long enough to make the adjustment, allowing the dust to settle in the homes of empty nesters? According to an October 2003, Newsweek article, authors Barbara Kantrowitz and Karen Springen, state that "psychologists who study marriage say the first year without kids is typically the second most stressful adjustment in a marriage; ironically, the only more perilous period is the first year of parenthood". Parents describe mixed and bittersweet emotions about their newly acquired, nondescript roles and wonder what's next for them? The holidays will no doubt be filled with good cheer and an extra serving of emotion when families prepare for the next rite of passage, the first homecoming. Cheryl Giacomaro of Byram is looking forward to the holidays and is thrilled that not only will the holidays be like every other year, but so will her household, since her son made the decision to remain at home and attend a local college. "I'm not at all ready for my kids to leave home, I feel too young to start that part of my life. I enjoy my children and I love having them and their friends around. I would really miss being a part of their lives," she admits. Kim Lindsley of Sparta agrees that it's the traditions steeped in your children's everyday lives that she misses. "My son is a senior in high school and is on the football team. Each week we host a traditional before-the- game-meal with his friends. Afterwards, we all go to the game. I will really miss that, and his friends, come this September when he goes to college." Linsley, who has two older kids already in college, will admit that the chore of laundry is lighter with two less people in the house, and not listening to arguments about who is borrowing the family car is also a welcomed change. She also says that she may be spoiling her younger two children a bit more because she realizes now how quickly they become independent. But the best change of all, according to Linsley, is a newfound respect for your kids when they return from college. "You see them as adults, and value their opinion more. You realize how much they really know, and that they actually were listening to you all those years!" Linsley expects a full house for the holidays as her college kids return home and extended family stay for the long weekend. "My four kids love being together for the holidays. On Christmas Eve they have their own tradition of all sleeping in the same room so that they wake up at the same time together. One of the things we do is build fires in our outside fireplace, play football, and have ping-pong tournaments. Everyone just enjoys being together." The term "empty nest" according to Sparta psychologist Pierce Skinner is straight forward, and though it can apply to both parents, typically it has the greatest effect on the mother's life, leaving her with an emptiness in her heart. "It's important to recognize the larger context of what empty nest is a part of, and how to deal with it. We all weave a life with different times, stages, and purposes, all of which are part of our own personal evolution. Yes, empty nest is a time of loss, but actually it is also a time of transformation. Quiet times reflecting in a heartfelt fashion on the successful completion of this time in life are essential", states Skinner. "I felt like a piece of my heart was ripped out" says mother of four, Joan Karl of Sparta, describing her feelings when her son left for college. "He is so outgoing and brings so much life into the house. I miss him not being here everyday. Once they leave for college things are never the same again. They come home different people, they're all grown up! It's very emotional." Changing the family dynamics when kids go away to college can have a positive effect on some relationships. "My sons are closer now that my eldest is away. They were always so different, and their relationship reflected those differences, but now they talk more and take more of an interest in each other," said Karl. The Karl family will all be together for the holidays, and as tradition dictates, they will cut down their Christmas tree together, decorate it the next day, with the guys hanging lights and wreaths outside and the girls decking the halls inside. A Christmas shopping spree is also on the itinerary for the entire family. This past September, Donna Zimmermen of Sparta, sent her youngest of three off to a college campus. "It really took a good few weeks to get over the physical feeling of emptiness. You just feel like a part of you is missing, you lose a part of yourself. You're caught between your heart and your head, it's bittersweet. You have to learn to adjust to the quiet in the house. The extra peripheral activities also end when your kids leave home; the conversations about everyday things, the phone calls, the friends in and out of your house and being a part of their lives too. I was so involved in their day to day activities, and now, well, now I'm not." Zimmermen is very excited about the holidays, but reflecting back on traditions they had, she says sadly that most of them have been put aside because everyone is not always together and traditions aren't the same as they were when everyone was living under the same roof. "Everyone is coming home though, and I'm happy for that, and this is what it's all about ... This is why we put in all those long years of hard work raising them, to have them come back home as independent adults." Dr Skinner believes every mother at this stage in life should celebrate her accomplishment. "A mother has achieved a personal triumph reaching the point where she has nurtured her children to this next, most amazing stage of autonomy. She has accomplished one of the greatest things that can ever be done. In a broader perspective, it is not an end. She will still be needed by her children as the years go by." Oddly enough, just as her children have moved out into the world to discover the next phase of their life, so also it is time for mother herself, to discover the next phase of her own life. In Stanhope, Linda and Gene White are considered veteran empty nesters. They both work full time and enjoy the time they spend together after successfully raising a son and a daughter. "We love having our kids visit, but we're not at all upset when it's time for them to go either. We've moved on to that next phase in our lives and we're very comfortable with it", says Linda. "We still have our holiday traditions of attending a candlelit church service on Christmas Eve, and visiting Rockefeller Center in New York City. We look forward to that" Did the Whites ever experience that emptiness the others felt? "Oh yes!" says Linda. "In fact, as much as we like our lives the way we are now, I remember when we took our son to college, we went out to breakfast first and I couldn't look at him the whole time or I would just burst into tears. I was so emotional about him leaving. Those goodbyes were very, very hard for me, but, as time goes on, you really do adjust
" Do you have a heartfelt, funny or interesting homecoming or empty nest story you'd like to share? If so, please share it by emailing it to Editor.firstname.lastname@example.org no later than Dec. 13. We'll publish them in our holiday issue.