Empty nesters: Claim your extra room
With college students tucked into their dorm rooms, empty nesters see new real estate in their old rooms, but kids may expect find their old bedroom intact. Head off conflict by discussing the transition together.
What do you do with the room, when the kids go off to college? A decade ago, when my children were going off to college, I wrote an article entitled, "How to gain space when your child goes off to college – without alienating the previous occupant" for the San Francisco Chronicle. Now the children of several friends are going, and the discussion arose again. Here are my ideas.Skip to next paragraph
Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and writer living with her husband in the San Francisco Bay area, where she has worked with children – including her now grown children – and families for more than 30 years. When she appears on local media or at parent workshops she is often introduced as a “parenting expert,” a label she describes as her favorite oxymoron (followed closely by sweet 16). She blogs at Raising kids, gardens, and awareness.
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I overheard a neighbor ask my newly graduated daughter, "Is your mother getting sad about you leaving for college?" Lauren's reply: "Nope, she's already decided on the new paint color for my room."
That wasn't entirely true. I hadn't decided yet. And I, like parents all over the country, have mixed feelings about this big transition.
For most families the departure of a youngster for college brings up all kinds of feelings, but it also presents some very practical issues. One is how to deal with the vacated room. There are moms and dads who, while mourning the passage, are thinking about the wonderful possibility of a home office, exercise room or guest room.
We already had a home office, so our goal was a guest room. The mother of one of Lauren's friends also wanted a guest room but planned few changes. That's because her daughter's room already looked like a guest room. My daughter's room, on the other hand, looks like a sari shop, inhabited by an origami expert who has traveled in Africa and collects bags of all kinds. So significant changes were in order.
My friend Mary Jo recalled how she consoled herself after the departure of her son by enjoying the luxury of a room where she could keep her sewing machine set up all the time.In contrast, another mother was feeling so sad about her daughter leaving that she hadn't even considered changing the room. Mourning in advance, she seemed to be planning the room as a sort of shrine to the departed college student.
I grew up in a little Midwestern town where we dealt with all emotional matters by doing chores. When someone passed away, we baked for the family; we shoveled the snow, mowed the lawn or raked the leaves. So it seemed only natural to address this emotional event with some practical action.
My daughter and I decided to embark upon the adventure in a systematic way and to negotiate the changes so that she would feel comfortable when she returned and the room could be used in her absence.We did this by talking to other people who were going through this change, or who had already passed through this phase. We made our individual wish lists and compromised on changes. We considered the many issues involved, such as storage, furniture changes and repainting.
My wish list
-- A palette that would allow me to use a collection of vintage linens
-- To use the beautiful antique bed from my mother
-- To repaint
-- Twenty-four inches of hanging space in the closet and two empty drawers in the dresser
-- The posters to come down
-- The 3-foot tall stuffed dog to be placed in storage.
Lauren's wish list
-- A place for Poppy to sleep (This is the resident of the room who will be staying and like most cats requires a place to take her 10-hour daily nap.)
-- My tall desk to stay
-- My room color sky blue
-- My goldfish to stay
-- Some of my artwork to be framed and hung
Work with each other
In surveying her classmates, Lauren found that the opinions were very mixed about what should be done with their rooms. Given this, it is important to make no assumption and to be explicit on both sides about how it will be done. From our research and our own process we came up with these suggestions and considerations:
-- Be aware of the temperament of the departing student. Some may not care what happens once they're out the door and others may need the comfort of a safe harbor.
-- Do talk about the changes each party would like and be specific. There may be little things that mean a lot.
-- A lot of important stuff is quite portable and can be stored in the room and brought back out during return visits.