Marking the empty nest milestone

By Diane Schwemm

This year my son is a sophomore, so “move-out” day will be quite different from last summer. He’ll fly by himself from Colorado to Massachusetts, and travel lightly, having left most of his stuff in campus storage.

But I remember last August clearly. Our household was a mess — Josh was leaving for college at the exact same time his younger brothers were starting school. Only at the last minute did it occur to me that we should do something kind of special on his final evening at home.

We went to a favorite family restaurant (yes, a pasta place — I have three teenaged sons); they “dressed up” (wore polo shirts); I took a picture. Josh was unusually good-natured with his younger brothers, joking around with them on the sidewalk while we waited for a table. It’s a happy memory.

In the frenzy of preparation, don’t forget to take a day, an evening, or an hour to spend special time with your freshman. It doesn’t have to be fancy, or carefully scripted.

When I asked friends to share their memories of marking this milestone, I was struck by the simple and personal nature of the stories. “After dinner at a restaurant, we played tag and monkey-in-the-middle in the front yard until it got dark.” “When my two college guys were driven up to school by one parent, the rest of the family collected on the curb as the last item was crammed into the trunk and then ran alongside the car waving like lunatics — a goofy goodbye tradition from our family vacations in Maine.” “We go to our favorite ice cream shop and sit around talking about the summer and what the school year might hold.”

I hope you enjoy these reflections from two friends and fellow writers.

Savor the simple, enduring memories you make with your own family.

Lucy writes: There were two dinner celebrations for our daughter, one at home and one when we arrived in her college town 2,000 miles away. My childhood friend drove in from a nearby city with her family and took Anna and me to dinner. We went around the table making toasts, and both Mary and her husband took pictures of Anna and ceremoniously entered her contact information into their cell phones, and Anna did the same. It was a sweet way to demonstrate for me that they were going to take care of my dear daughter. As it turns out, they were there for her throughout her college years, storing her boxes over summers, meeting her at the airport after her semester abroad, inviting her to their home for dinners, and visiting campus for her senior showcase.

When our second child, Russell, left for college, he and his dad took off on the 14-hour drive west intending to push through to California in one day. On a whim, they decided to stop for the night in Las Vegas. When I checked on them the next morning, they were still in Vegas, having had their favorite huevos rancheros breakfast and then making their leisurely way through a museum on Hollywood gangsters. I had been sad not to accompany them, but at that minute it seemed so right that they were having a little bit of their own father/son bonding time.

Lauren remembers: Even though Bess wasn’t going far — only 15 miles away — her departure still marked a change in our family: the firstborn leaving home. The morning before we took her to college, she and my husband and I ran on trails through the woods. We took my favorite trail that wound up a pine-sheltered path that was always damp from springs underground. It was a cool August morning, and as I ran behind my daughter, I thought about how ordinary and stunning this moment was. We were all three sharing an activity we loved; it seemed poignant to me to run together in contrast with the hyped-up shopping and driving I remember from my own college departure.

Now, two years later, my family marks another milestone: the departure of our second, our youngest daughter, who is going to college hundreds of miles away. Her choice is more risky, more unknown to the rest of the family. The moment approaches; today we shop for bedding and towels, desk lamps, the material items that ground this transition. When she leaves, my husband and I will live in a house without children. We start to prepare for it by recalling who we were when we were just a couple, the cadence of our lives together twenty years ago, and to try and imagine what we might expect next.


Lauren Rosenberg is about to face the empty nest. In addition to being the parent of two daughters in college, she teaches in the English department at Eastern Connecticut State University and coordinates the first year writing program there. She lives in western Massachusetts.

Lucy Ewing is in her 17th year as a national board certified teacher with the Boulder Valley School District and has been recognized by the Impact on Education Foundation and Jared Polis Foundation. Writing is a passion for Lucy. In addition to her articles for UniversityParent, she is a Denver Post “Colorado Voices” columnist and a college essay tutor. Lucy is parent to two recent college graduates, and she and her husband love nothing more than visiting them on both coasts.