Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Ones Left Behind

Got a child who left for college this fall?  Got more children still at home?

This time of transition doesn't just affect the one who left the nest.  It affects Mom, Dad, and younger siblings too.  The ones left behind.

Let me share with you what I found as each of my three older children left home.

DS1 left home for the military. We'd had months to prepare for his departure; he'd enlisted in January of his senior year, with an actual leaving home date of Labor Day.  When Labor Day came, DH, DS2, DD1, DD2 and I dropped him off at the local recruiting station with just the clothes on his back, and a Bible. That was all he was allowed to take to boot camp with him, as once there, he would be issued new clothing and his head would be shaved (regulation, to make all the newcomers equals and to build bonds in the platoon). Other than a phone call to let us know  he'd arrived safely, we would have no contact with him other than through letters sent by U.S. mail for the next 13 weeks.  We all gave him hugs, told him how proud we were of him, how much we all believed he would succeed in the Marine Corps, and then we left.  It was the hardest thing I'd ever had to do up to that point, and honestly, I think there hasn't been anything since that day that was so tough for me.

Back at home, DH cried (in private, with me, never in front of the kids).  He was filled with doubt, worried that he had somehow not been a good enough father to DS1. Regretting all the missed opportunities for more one-on-one time with him. I was totally unprepared for this reaction, and it unbalanced me.  I had been prepared to be sad, myself, at our eldest child leaving the nest. And, oddly, I had a profound sense of accomplishment:  "I did it, I raised one to adulthood; I am a good mother!" (Hadn't known I'd been carrying in my head and heart negative words thrown at me 18 years prior by someone who had been trying to convince my pregnant teenage self to abort the baby--DS1).  But I was thrown for a loop by DH being so overwhelmed with emotion.  I hadn't been prepared to comfort him, to need to comfort him, as the son he'd often butted heads with left home.

Chores got split up between the three kids left at home, each taking on an additional chore (DS1's share)  than they were used to being  responsible for.  DS2 became the family 'trashman'; the duty of taking the trash out to the end of the driveway on pick-up day now fell to him as the oldest child in the house.  DD1 toughened her attitude a little bit, as she thought was fitting for the sister of a United States Marine.  DD2 cried.  For weeks.  Every night.  As if her heart were breaking.  Another response I was not prepared for.  It made me realize that to her nine year old self, DS1 had almost been a third parent; the stand-in grown-up to take care of her and protect her when Mom and Dad weren't around.

Then we had four years to get ready for the next offspring to fly the nest.  I thought we'd be ready this time.

When we left DS2 standing excitedly in his college dorm room 500 miles from home, I could barely see to make it down the four flights of stairs to the parking lot because of the tears that filled my eyes.  One glance at DH told me he was having the same problem. The girls bounced joyfully down the stairs ahead of us, chattering about could one of them have the boys' old bedroom now so they wouldn't have to share the girls' room anymore, (the answer was no, DS2 would still need a place to sleep when he came home on breaks), and DD1 saying how she couldn't wait til the following year, when she would leave for college too.  In the Suburban, DH looked at me, swiped his eyes with the back of his hand, and said in a quiet voice "The hardest part is knowing that we're not leaving him; he's leaving us.  He's all grown up, he doesn't need us anymore."   And it was true.  That's what made our eyes so full of tears; knowing that our most independent child was so ready for this day, so ready to wave goodbye to his parents and tackle adulthood on his own.  It was three weeks before he even called home to say hi.

Meanwhile, back at home, the chores that once upon a time got split between four kids were revamped.  Some I took back, the rest were split two ways between the girls.  DD1, now the eldest child at home, became the family trashman.  She bore it less than gracefully, constantly reminding DD2 that it was only for a year, then DD2 would have to be the trashman for three full years before she graduated and left home.

With DS2 leaving, DH had no doubts about his fatherhood performance.  Instead, this time, he seemed to draw away from the three females in the house, insisting there was "too much estrogen" now that he was the only male on the premises.  I'll be honest, this hurt me deeply.  The girls, too, developed a little bit of a chasm from their father.  DD1's boyfriend became her priority for spending time with instead of her father, who had always held the place of honor in her life.  And, while DD1's boyfriend is about as model of a perfect boyfriend you'd ever want for your daughter, DH became almost antagonistic toward him.  (The boyfriend is still around today, and, after more than 3 years of dating DD1, is convinced that DH doesn't like him despite DH now warming up.)

The following year, DD1 got her turn.  We left her 750 miles away, happily arranging her dorm room with her new room mate.  She was excited, having finally arrived at the college she'd dreamed of attending since 1st grade.  We were excited--Yay us, another child left home and on the path to a successful adulthood.  I honestly don't think DH or I cried that time.

However, that very night DH texted her.  And the next day he called her.  And every day after that, his first words to me upon returning home from work each night were  "did you talk to DD1 today?" Talk to?  Usually. Get a text from?  Always.  Several times a day.  Unlike my sons, I didn't get a chance to miss her because she was still in contact with me.  Almost more than I wanted her to be.  The first time we didn't hear from DD1 for more than 36 hours, DH insisted I call her to make sure she was okay.  Was it any wonder she ended up moving back home at the end of the semester?

But before DD1 came home, DD2 and I had spent four whole months running the house as smooth as clockwork.  We split the chores, she and I, all those chores  that once upon a time had been the work of four children, and they all got done seamlessly.  If it was her chore to do dishes and she had an after school event that would keep her out late, she asked, usually two or three days ahead of time, if I would do the dishes for her in exchange for her doing one of my chores (usually dishes) on a different day.  If it weren't for her intense hatred of being the family trashman (and me reminding her just about every week to take out the trash on your way to the school bus!!!), I would have wondered what impostor had slipped into the role of my youngest child.

And then DH let DD1 quit the college she had been attending, move back home, and attend the community college here.  Oh, he was happy as a clam to have her home again.  DD2 not so much.  After a month of screaming and fighting, I split up the two girls, not just to different bedrooms, but to different floors of the house:  DD2 retaining the room that had always been the girls' (that DD2 had slept in since she was 5 years old and as the youngest was supposed to keep until she left home), and DD1 having a room set up in the basement for her.  That helped somewhat, but chores were a huge problem.  DD1 didn't do hers, mostly.  And she only had two:  dishes twice a week and clean the bathroom she was using.  DD2 and I had the rest.  Oh, now and then she would with much badgering, but mostly she would put them off, or completely blow me off.  And then DD2 got into the act because why in the world should she have to do chores if her sister didn't have to?  So, while DH was happy, and DD1 was fairly happy (except when I was reminding her of her responsibility to the household of doing her chores on time), DD2 was not happy and I was carrying the complaints of them all.

DD1 leaves home, take two.  She just left again a few weeks ago.  Much closer this time, only about 90 miles away.  She can come home on weekends if she wants to (DH likes this part especially).  It's been amazing how suddenly, with her sister gone, DD2 has become the sweet, responsible, and helpful person she was for the four months that DD1 lived out of state two years ago.  Chores are done, on time, no complaining.  She requests chore exchanges, in advance, for the evenings she won't be home until bedtime.  I'm happier again.  Not that I don't love DD1, because I do; I don't have favorites of my children, but everything is just so much smoother now with her out of the house.  Something about personality differences, about parental expectations, and about how DH still wanted to treat her like a child, sort of (when it came to what I expected of her as an adult in my house) and how DD1 wanted to play this to her advantage at times, but fight over it at others, that just makes her moving out a positive, easy transition for me.  And, apparently, for DD2 as well.

How will it be next August when the baby of the family, DD2, leaves home?  We will only know for sure when it happens.  But, I don't anticipate feeling lost like you often hear from mothers once their youngest leaves the nest.  I think DH probably will go through another regret phrase like he did when DS1 left, he butts heads with her almost as much as he did with DS1, but I don't see that happening with me.  I have a long list of things I've been waiting years to do, to explore, once my motherhood duties were completed.  I've spent the vast majority of DD2's life at home when she's home; I've spent a lot of time with her.  Sure, there are a few things we never did that I had wanted to do together, but I'm not filled with regret for those things.  Right now, I'm mostly trying to remember to grasp onto the senior year of high school things that I did with her siblings and make sure I do them with her too.

I hadn't intended this post to be so long, or so mostly about my family when I started.  I just wanted to bring up the point that when there are siblings still at home, it's not just Mom and Dad who have to adjust to a child leaving for college or the military, it's also the younger brothers and sisters left behind that will go through a transition.  If you have children at home, don't forget that they, too, are feeling the change, the lack of a family member's presence.  They too need a little time to adjust, and probably will need some more of your attention in one way or another, until everyone gets used to the new family dynamic.

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