What Happened to My Family After My Older Son Left for College

As the minivan pulls out of the parking lot after moving our older son into his dorm room, at a college 595 miles away from home, tears start to flow down my cheeks. Not because this is a milestone or that I will miss him terribly (both of which are undeniably true), but because our comfortable “foursome,” two parents and two children living under the same roof, has suddenly become an uncomfortable “threesome.” I wasn’t questioning the calculation – two plus one = three without a doubt, but I couldn’t figure out how this new math was going to work itself into our daily lives.

Family dynamics change after an older son goes to college

My younger son was suddenly thrust into the spotlight, becoming king of the jungle with no older sibling demanding attention. My gregarious, outgoing older son had left the nest and all that remained were distant memories of late night phone calls asking for a ride home or suddenly needing to feed an army of 10 teenagers after an AP History study session. The little one in our family is nothing like his older sibling. He’s quiet, cerebral and fiercely independent. He would never consider taking AP History – his interests lie in the sciences and math.

The day we dropped older son off at college became the day we started getting to know younger son. It has been a joyous and unexpected roller coaster of a ride to form a relationship with #2. In fact, for the first time in our household, #2 has become #1.

[More on parenting younger siblings at home here.]

For years, my rush-home-after-work-and-throw-dinner-on-the-table routine consisted of quickie meals that required no more than five ingredients and could be prepared in 30 minutes or less. With older son far away, dinners are still on the table in 30 minutes or less, but they are more planned and full of flavor. I tirelessly search on-line for recipes that will appeal to younger son, who likes his food hot and spicy. Our refrigerator has suddenly given birth to bottles of piquant condiments like Red Curry Paste, Saracha Hot Chili Sauce and Premium Fish Sauce. Our bland dinners are now bursting with flavors that clear our sinuses and open our eyes to each other.

Figuring out his food preferences was the first step in getting re-acquainted with my second born. When there were four of us living under the same roof, getting out the door to a family event, or any social gathering for that matter, was always an ordeal, mainly because older son is a “Last Minute Charlie.” Although his birth name is unrelated to Charlie, Charles or Chuck, this is the affectionate nickname we gave older son years ago because of his propensity to do everything last-minute. This includes taking a shower, completing homework, studying for tests and packing for a trip. Inevitably, there would be lots of yelling and screaming (mostly by me) and threatening (again, mostly me) all aimed at older son, before he reluctantly relented to do whatever offense he had been postponing.

But younger son is acutely aware of time. He does not like to be late and expertly manages his schedule. He studies well in advance of exams and has never considered pulling an “all-nighter.” While I was always aware that he was more Type A than Type B, it wasn’t until there was a temporarily vacant (and clean!) 3rd bedroom in our house that it became truly obvious to me. Armed with the knowledge that younger son is not a procrastinator and is extremely aware of his responsibilities and deadlines, I am a lot calmer these days. Gone are the fears that something will slip through the cracks – like a permission slip that must be returned or an instrument that needs a repair before the big concert. Younger son has got it all covered and it’s like I won one thousand “Get Out Of Jail Free” cards without having to pass “Go” one thousand times.

I’ve made peace with this new normal. The best part of our family being Four Minus One these days is that I am able to observe the transformation that is taking place. Like the caterpillar morphing into the butterfly, younger son is on the verge of crossing over the threshold from Big Child to Little Adult. His eyes still light up when he sees an arcade and begs for “just one more ” chance to hit the jackpot or beat the high score. He can still be placated and soothed by the offer of an ice cream, in order to lessen the sting of being excluded from a popular neighbor’s Saturday night party. And younger son still comes running to me when he needs a Band-Aid or cream for the weird rash that just appeared on his chest. I know this will end one day soon and he’ll be able to find what he needs in the medicine cabinet, and in life, without my help. But for now, I relish the fact that I can still mother him and make him feel better when he’s hurt, whether it’s inside or out.

I adore both of my children. They are equally kind and sensitive. Both are intelligent and bright individuals with good hearts and deep souls. But there’s something to be said for sending an older child off to college and leaving a younger child home alone. On the bright side, I’ve only just begun to get to know my baby. On the not-so-bright side, I’ve only got two years left until the nest really becomes empty.

Related:

Sibling Separation

After the Last Child

Holiday Gifts for College Kids and Teens – We Love These!

amy-brothman-ramer-pictureAmy Brothman-Ramer lives in northern New Jersey and works in the banking industry. She hones her writing skills at night and on weekends, when her family huddles together to watch the Yankees or the Giants. She is a native of Buffalo, NY and likes her chicken wings on the mild side and smothered in blue cheese. She writes in memory of Lecky, who was a doting mother to S and W and always loved a good bargain.

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