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Dealing with Extra Anxiety as You Send a Student to College This FallMarybeth Bock, MPH
When I talk to friends who are empty nesters and ask what they dislike most about their kids being gone, one of the top answers I get is that their house is too quiet.
I'm starting to understand what they mean.
Although my youngest doesn’t leave for college for several months, my house has already gotten quieter. With only a few weeks left of high school, my son’s attention has turned to other things: baseball season, his summer plans, etc., most of which don’t include me. Our interactions are generally pleasant; he has an easy personality. However, he isn’t much of a talker and, like most teenagers, spends a lot of time in his room on multiple devices.
During the years when I was raising three sons, our house reverberated with noise. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that my neighbors could hear my sons — and me — especially in warm weather when the windows were open. The boys would yell. I would yell. My oldest son was particularly loud and back then liked to argue and debate every point (spoiler alert: he became a lawyer). Even our dog had a piercing bark.
My boys weren’t just loud when they were angry or upset; their play was raucous, too. My middle son loved having Nerf gun wars with his friends and the house shook as they thundered up and down the stairs. Sometimes they played in the basement, but even two floors below my bedroom, I could hear them. In fact, no matter what they were doing, their presence was unmistakable — when they played board or video games or watched sports on television, there were victory cries or screams of dismay: “YESSSS!!” “NOOOO!!!!” “THE REF IS BLIND!!!” “OH MY GOD, THAT WAS SO CLOSE!”
My neighbors across the street have three children and their household is energetic. Would I rather be them — back in the thick of things? I honestly don’t have a straightforward answer.
When my oldest son was in high school, he had a friend who sometimes came over to watch TV with him. The friend’s older brother was away at college and both his parents worked long hours, so when he got home from school, his own house was empty. I sensed he came over for more than television; he once observed that our house was “lively” and indeed it was. I’d give him a snack and he seemed content to soak in the hubbub that was our life. More than once I thought it might be nice to switch places and go over to his quiet house for a few hours, but I figured his parents would think it odd if they came home and found me sitting alone there reading a magazine.
After my older sons left for college, things calmed down a lot around here. I was certainly ready for a bit of a break from the nonstop clamor and commotion. Trust me when I say they were sensory overload; we never put it to the test, but I'm sure they could wake the dead.
But now things have gone to the other extreme. My house echoes with quiet. There’s no arguing, boisterous imaginative play, or music blasting. The house has an entirely different feel to it; the rooms are the same (okay, a lot cleaner) but it seems as if I’m living in a bit of a ghost town. The funny thing is, back when they all lived at home and were gone for a day, weekend or even a few weeks in the summer, I enjoyed the serenity. Maybe it was different because I understood the peace was temporary and therefore to be cherished. This time around I know that, except for when my boys come home for occasional visits, the quiet is here to stay.
I tell myself I’ll get used to this, too, just as I’ve adjusted to things before. When my husband and I went on our honeymoon to a Caribbean island, the first few days we were bored out of our minds. After the busyness and stress that surrounded our wedding and his taking the bar exam, the laid-back island culture was a stark contrast. I wondered why we hadn’t chosen a destination where there would have been more to do. A week there seemed like forever. But by the middle of the week, we started to appreciate the slower pace and, by the last few days, I was ready to move there and string beads on the beach.
I imagine that’s what will happen with this new phase.
My neighbors across the street have three children and their household is energetic. I hear their kids playing and shouting, and see their cars pulling in and out of their driveway as they drive to and from activities. Would I rather be them — back in the thick of things? I honestly don’t have a straightforward answer. If I never logged on to another school portal or had to referee a fight between my sons, it would be too soon. But would I love to be able to snuggle up with my boys in bed and read to them? Just one more time? Absolutely. That’s how life is, though; all or nothing.
Friends tell me all the wonderful things about empty nesting and I believe them. They seem pretty happy. I guess if it gets too quiet around here I can cross the street and hang out with my neighbors and their three kids. But I have a feeling I won’t need to.