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.

AP Photo/The Buffalo News, Derek Gee
Sarah Filsinger of Orchard Park, N.Y., unloads her belongings as freshmen students move into the dormitories at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., Aug. 21, 2013. While some parents may mourn the departure of their college students, others celebrate the extra room at home.

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.  

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.

Negotiating change 

 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.

-- If the student is going to school nearby, go slow on major changes.

-- Invest in lots of clear plastic storage boxes and label each in detail.

-- Have a "going to college" garage sale with a group of friends to thin out possessions.

-- If a younger sibling will finally be getting his or her own room, make specific provisions for a welcoming and personal space for the return visits of the college student. Be sensitive about this transfer of turf.

-- If the room becomes an office, include a daybed and keep a favorite comforter in the closet.

The mother of a son has always wanted a Laura Ashley/Country French guest room. She devised a plan to have that and still let her son return to his denim den. She has a new floral duvet cover and shams, a pretty lamp and framed prints.In his closet will be a space to store his comforter, sports trophies and NBA posters. She figures it will take about 30 minutes to switch the accessories when her son is coming home. That's my plan too. I can change the comforter, stick up some posters, throw a few stuffed animals on the bed, fill the laundry basket to overflowing, and my daughter will feel right at home.

It's still home

It's fairly common knowledge that people often create conflict to make parting easier. By talking about these things ahead of time, what could be a tumultuous departure can be made smoother. Most youngsters, like their parents,have mixed feelings. They are eager to go, but want a nest to return to.

As a devoted nester I believe it is important to provide our big kids with a sense of belonging. Most valuable is the care and acceptance that families give us, but it is also the comfort of the familiar, whether it's a Tim Duncan poster, a stuffed turtle or a Power Puff Girl lamp. If it's important to your child, it's important.

A Web survey of graduating college students found that 62 percent planned to return and spend some significant time living back at home. Depending upon the parents and child, that might prompt a more or less significant remodel of the room.

One mother of a college senior cautioned, "Just make sure that you take the bed out of the room." On the other hand, parents of a twenty-something son said that the time he spent back home after college was the most fun they'd had with him since he was a toddler.

All parents said that kids who come home after being away at college seem to appreciate home more. I'm going with that report and believe it will be true no matter what shade of blue we paint the room.

The follow up: It’s been almost 10 years since my daughter first left. The room now painted a robin’s egg blue has been well used. Sometimes by guests, sometimes by my daughter’s periodic returns and most often by a new cat who also needs the perfect spot for her daily nap. My daughter lives nearby and the room still serves as long-term storage for her. I think another article is in the works for how we will deal with that “transition.”

Her brother is back. Now in graduate school, the old room looks pretty good compared with the terrible rents in our area. Most of peers are in the same “boat”. His presence requires another kind of planning and the creation of shared expectations. It is currently a work in progress, but a common part of contemporary parenting.

(More recently many of us are experiencing the "joy" of our kids' return. I cover that in a work in progress titled "The birds are back.")

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Susan DeMersseman blogs at Raising kids, gardens and awareness.

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