When her only child left for college, one mom eased the transition by relishing her newfound freedom — and her quiet house.

By Annie Finnigan; Photography Brooks Freehill

Home Alone

Elizabeth Wrenn, her husband, Stuart Grogan, both 50, and daughter Ella, 18, have always been a tight threesome. Even when Ella became an independent-minded teen, she still hung out with her mom and dad — cooking, reading, or hiking near their home in Boulder, Colorado. So when Ella chose a college 1,300 miles away, Elizabeth knew it would be an adjustment. "I spent hours with Ella every day," says Elizabeth, a writer who works from home. "I knew the house would feel empty."

In preparation for Ella's departure, Elizabeth began putting more energy into her work. She published her first novel, Around the Next Corner (Penguin), while Ella was immersed in college applications; it was no coincidence that the heroine was struggling to separate from her almost-grown kids. But Elizabeth still had to find out what was around her next corner.

Ella was accepted to a small school in Washington State known for its academic reputation, and her parents were thrilled. But the summer before she left, Elizabeth became increasingly nostalgic. "I found myself looking at Ella's baby pictures."

She thought of a memory from years before, when she'd taught Ella to ride a bike, running beside her with a steadying hand on the seat — a hand she couldn't bring herself to remove. One day Ella gained momentum, moving so fast Elizabeth had trouble keeping up. "I had to let go. I shouted, 'Pedal!' and she was off."

To handle this second "letting go" with more grace, the family planned a mini vacation in a seaside town close to Ella's college. The three days passed in a pleasant rush, and move-in day arrived. After countless trips to Target and the chaos of setting up a dorm room, they went to the edge of campus, hugged and watched Ella walk away. "She wanted to be the one leaving for a new adventure, not the one being left behind."

Taking Time to Reconnect

As Elizabeth and Stuart drove off, they noticed one of the Target bags in the backseat. "We cracked up — all this orchestration and it was still imperfect!" Hoping not to bump into Ella, Stuart hustled to the dorm and left the bag on her doorknob. And then there were two.

Instead of flying back to their "empty nest," they headed to Whidbey Island in Washington's Puget Sound. "We wanted to reconnect, to take a deep breath and focus on this special time for us." On the return flight home, screaming babies served as noisy reminders that parenting isn't all paradise. "If they had been sleeping peacefully, I might've burst into tears," Elizabeth says. "Instead I thought, 'Not us! We're done.'"

When they finally got home the house seemed "echo-y," and Ella's empty chair at the dinner table made her absence palpable. But starting a new way of life wasn't as hard as Elizabeth feared. In fact, it was fun. She and Stuart would grab lunch or stroll through the farmers' market. They rediscovered spontaneity: One "school night" they decided at the last minute to catch a film and raced home to feed the dog before making it to the theater just in time. "We hadn't done that in years," says Elizabeth.

Yet she still found herself wandering into Ella's room. "I thought it would be comforting," she says, laughing. But with the stripped bed and the empty hangers, it just made her feel sad. "So I stopped going in there."

Inward Focus

Instead, she focused more on what she wanted to get out of life. She started going to the gym regularly, something she'd rarely had time for before. Gone was the guilt of a two-hour workout.

There were other big changes, too. Elizabeth returned home from Washington to a pile of work and she tackled it in a newly energized way. "Not only do I have more time, it feels like I also have more brainpower. Before, I was preoccupied with Ella's schedule: Where is she, does she need the car, what's for dinner? Now I don't have to worry about all that."

The newly "lowercase mom rather than capital-M Mother" thinks of Ella often, looks forward to her weekly phone calls and enjoys every moment of her visits. And on her mother's 50th birthday, Ella flew home to surprise her. "She planned it and paid for it," Elizabeth says proudly. "It was entirely her idea."

It's moments like these that make Elizabeth realize she's taught Ella well and can move on to new challenges. "College is a time for her to experiment with who she is," she says. "And now it's my turn, too, to learn about myself."

Good News for Parents

For most of us, life will only get better after the kids fly the coop. According to Karen Fingerman, associate professor of child development and family studies at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Indiana, parents — especially moms — enjoy the freedom to pursue their goals and reconnect with other people. To help with the adjustment, check out one of these books:

  • When Your Kid Goes to College: A Parents' Survival Guide, by Carol Barkin
  • Letting Go: A Parents' Guide to Understanding the College Years, by Karen Levin Coburn and Madge Lawrence Treeger
  • Don't Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money, by Helen E. Johnson and Christine Schelhas-Miller

Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the April 1 2008 issue of Family Circle magazine.