There's this funny sense many people have that parenting means getting your kids to 18, and then you're essentially done. Sure, there's usually college to get them through, and being available to help get them on their feet out in the world, but otherwise, you know. . . Done.
Not so much though. Legally, I guess if I thought of any of my kids as a burden or a menace, I could wave goodbye when they technically hit adulthood and not look back. But that's insane. There are still things to teach and hugs to give and traumas that wrench at your heart as if their suffering is your own.
My oldest is 21, and she delayed starting college because of Covid, but she's now a couple of years in and her new life living in dorms has its ups and downs even though she likes her school. Last year she worked at a summer camp over break and wasn't home much, but this year she came home for nearly the whole summer break.
My middle kid is 19, and until recently was living at home since graduating high school a semester early, and she wasn't interested in college. She's spent the last year or so applying for jobs and working on sewing plushies for her Etsy page, but she recently began an apprenticeship at a tattoo parlor that is opening up across the street from our violin store and is excited about having real direction.
My youngest is 16 and in her junior year of high school. Although she's technically the only kid at home we're responsible for, often she's the one that seems to need us the least right now.
When my oldest left for college a couple of years ago, the room she shared with her sister essentially ceased to be her room. It's not a big room, so the idea of expecting its remaining occupant to be limited to just a small part of it when nobody was on the other side was unrealistic. But that meant when my oldest came home from college in June, the best place for her to stay was in a small guest space on the first floor that we call "the nook."
By the mid-summer, however, the middle kid with the room to herself upstairs, moved into our Airbnb above the violin store. She wants to be more independent, and we still want to support her while she's working on her education (even if it's unconventional), so we figured this would work out well. She'll be living across the street from the tattoo place, and in lieu of rent we're putting her in charge of all the building chores (shoveling, mowing, weeding, cleaning the halls and teaching studio, etc.) and she'll get experience paying her own utility bills and budgeting for food. I'm glad she'll be close for a bit.
With the room at home empty, I offered to paint it and help rearrange it to the needs and tastes of the oldest kid. I know she'll only be there during school breaks, but it made me sad that she has been feeling less a part of our home. We picked out a nice new color for the walls, and I got the whole room finished over a couple of nights. We found a new dresser, rug, and curtains, and moved over a couple of bookcases and a desk from her youngest sister's room. And we hung art! That's always my favorite part of setting up a new room. We even got a print by one of her former teachers framed as an early birthday present. The room looks great, and it feels like her own.
(Here are the girls helping paint their room when we first moved into the new house. I split the room and let them each pick their own color for their half. The new single color is a very pale blue that helps open up the room a lot.)
The youngest kid turned down my offer to paint her room, too, but did need a new light fixture, and agreed to some new furniture. She requested a night stand, and a better system for storing and displaying her things, so we ended up assembling one of those walls of cubby box shelves that looks nice. Those things, along with a new small bookcase that better matches the other furniture and a new rug, have given her room a nice update.
We did a whole musical chairs thing with the beds. When the oldest went to college we threw away her mattress and replaced it with one guests would like better. She didn't like the new mattress, so she kept her bed frame and took the middle kid's mattress, while the youngest kid didn't like anything about her bed, so she got the middle kid's bed frame and the newer guest mattress.
We also sorted all the stuffed animals. That was more involved than you might imagine, because the oldest kid is deeply sentimental, the middle kid is practical, and the youngest is somewhere in between. The piles of what to keep, what belonged to whom, what to give away, etc. got some people rather teary, to the point where I offered to simply scoop up some things to put in storage for another time. The emotional line between being an adult and a child is as fuzzy as a stuffed bunny sometimes, especially when standing in a space where you've experienced being both.
All the shifting about and moving things around has been interesting and odd. Dropping my oldest off at her dorm for the first time a couple of years ago was hard. I was leaving her somewhere far from me for the first time, and I didn't like it, even though I knew it was good for all of us. We found a new way to live that didn't include her being around. But then she was back for months and we developed a whole routine with her being involved in daily life again, and with her at school once more I've had to get used to her being gone all over.
By comparison, the middle kid completely moving out with little chance she'll ever live under this roof again, has barely been noticeable. During the summer she was over to continue binge watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel with me and her sister each night as usual. She sometimes makes her own meals out of our fridge when she visits. So far she's got the best of both worlds, where she can hang out with her family like a kid when it suits her, and then go home to her apartment and do things her own way when she wants to be an adult. I'm jealous. I've always thought it would be ideal to be able to visit with my relatives without the complication of someone needing to be away from home to do it. I would love to go to dinner with my mom at her house, but still sleep in my own bed that night. I'm glad my own kid gets to do that.
With the oldest back at college, and the middle kid in her own space, we're down to one child at home. And she's the quietest, least conspicuous of the three. She's had an uptick in after school activities, so there is some chance to talk as we drive her places. She's still in charge of making dinner for the family from a meal kit a few nights a week, and sometimes she'll use the computer in the dining room, but otherwise we don't see her much. I feel as if the transition in a couple of years to me and my husband being empty nesters won't be as much of a shock as I feared.
In the meantime, there is always another thing to manage with kids whether they are home or not: Trouble with health insurance and prescriptions, banking questions, arranging rides, coordinating errand schedules, figuring out dental appointments, replacing lost retainers, helping start a car that won't run, etc. Not the most warm and fuzzy bits of parenting, but all ways of being connected even after kids technically become adults. We can still be helpful. We can still be a safe place to land.
The lovely thing is to learn that my kids still want that connection even when they have other choices. My oldest was recently back for a few days because she was homesick, and our neighborhood is really fun at Halloween. She was happy to be in her updated room. She drew out both of her sisters and I was able to spend time with all three kids together. I used to worry that when my middle kid moved out that we'd seldom see her, but she regularly invites me along when she makes a run to the fabric store or Home Depot. This gives me hope that even as we don't see the youngest much at the moment, that we will still warrant visits when she moves on in the future.
I'm kind of excited to imagine the next stage of our lives where Ian and I can make plans primarily around just each other again, without kids as the primary focus. It will be interesting to use our house in a different way, and figure out what we eat when we're only two people, and travel places without kids.
But not quite yet. (I'm glad it's not quite yet.)