Family Dynamics

I recently sent my last child off to college.

This summer seemed to go faster than most. It seemed there was always someone on the way out the door. Before we knew it, we were getting ready to send one, then another child off to their respective schools. A week in between move-in days made it possible to focus on each of them, one at a time, but made for a very busy August. With last minute purchases and packing, there was little time to dwell on what all this meant, which was good, because I have known this was coming for some time. Having nine years between the first and last leaving for college has given me lots of time to think about it. Fortunately, I knew what emotions to expect.

Of course I cried while driving away from the college and know that next year will be different. Next year will be easier. Coming home and looking into now two empty bedrooms was another challenge. Though this is my fourth time as a parent of a college freshman, I am now in uncharted waters. For the first time in my adult life, there are no daily parenting responsibilities. The house is eerily quiet. I am oblivious to the local school calendar (which I am enjoying very much, especially the lack of early morning alarms). Dinner is a challenge now that most days I am cooking for two or three instead of anywhere from two to five or six. (I will likely figure that out just before they come home for break.)

Over the years, I have learned that sending kids to college changes the family dynamics. Even knowing this, the reality always manages to catch someone unawares. The first time my oldest came home from college, I was surprised by how different things were. After she left, we all arrived at a new normal. When she came home, we all were unsettled by the almost imperceptible differences. Relationships changed, in very small but noticeable ways. Her experiences had changed her and her absence caused a shift in routine, changing the relationships of those still in the house. Her siblings had grown, too, but her perception of them had stayed the same. (This repeated each time one left and came home.)

My youngest commented recently how she didn’t really think about things at home changing, as if they would stay exactly the same as when she left. I hadn’t thought about it in that way, but her perceptions are spot on. That is exactly what happens. When one leaves, one focuses on the new experiences, not on what is left behind. I did the same thing; it didn’t occur to me that life went on without me (that is, until there were events and vacations I missed and heard stories about later).

Adjusting to the new dynamics can be a challenge. The college calendar is such that you finally get used to the absence, then your child comes home. But, it is not the same child you dropped off at school. This one acts more like an adult and resists being treated like a child. Conversations take a different tone, parents know less (usually just for a few years) and house rules are challenged. Routines have changed (as they frequently do), but no one has clued in the college kid who is bound to disrupt it.

Parents have to struggle with the idea that maybe, their child knows more than they do on some topics. They are no longer the awe-inspiring, all-knowing authorities they were just a few short months ago. Sibling relationships change as well. The older ones may not be idolized anymore, and the younger ones are not as impressionable anymore. The typical arguments don’t go away (who gets to ride shotgun, for example), but they are somehow different. Sometimes the jockeying for attention gets more intense. Alliances shift. They understand each other more (or sometimes less, depending on the topic). Roles change.

Parenting an adult is much, much different from parenting a child. Physical separation makes this fact more noticeable, more dramatic. The emotional shifts can be strong and swift. In a short span, you can be incredibly frustrated at their stubborn insistence that they know more than you do (after all, even I still sometimes need advice and support from my parents) and then experience the physical feelings that go along with intense pride at who they have become. They will always be your children, but they have also somehow become adults. It is difficult to achieve the correct balance, to guide without controlling, to advise without meddling.

We have been in this place before, but this time, it is different. This time, I am the one who has been left behind. They all will return, with their own expectations, and they all will be surprised. I look forward to this coming holiday season and watching things unfold. Thanksgiving is the next time they all will be together and they will certainly have things to share with each other. It will be the first time ever they are all together as adults, since the youngest just turned 18. I expect there will be some competition, some interrupting, a couple disagreements, some conspiring, and hopefully a lot of giggles.

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