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A Father's Pre-Empty Nest Post-Partum Mess

Women aren't the only ones who feel the loss when the "baby" grows up, goes to college and moves out of the house. Fathers do too. I'm already feeling the empty-nest syndrome.
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Women aren't the only ones who feel the loss when the "baby" grows up, goes to college and moves out of the house. Fathers do too. Although it's a little hard to admit -- I am already feeling the empty-nest syndrome, in spite of being sure it would never hit me. This isn't something my fellow father friends ever discussed or warned me about. I've never read about it from a man's perspective either.

It's official -- the university has been chosen. The time is upon us. Only a few months left. My (our) youngest son is headed out the door for college this coming August, and I'm feeling it big time. The days are numbered, and I can't believe it but I'm having separation anxiety! Yes me, over six feet tall big strapping dad that I am, I have become an emotional mess of a man.

Applications have long-ago been written, edited, rewritten and sent. Financial aid forms (oh that lovely FAFSA) and electronic pleas submitted. We've toured and heard university sales pitches ad nausea. 'Tis the season for parents of high-school seniors to get ready. I wasn't quite prepared.

I thought I was so cool and experienced by now. We did it before and survived our oldest son's departure. We missed him a lot, even though he "boomerangs" most weekends. Now, our house is about to be totally kid-empty for the first time in 24 years. This time the move-out for college is markedly different.

Yes, I am all about helping our last child get ready and actually go. My wife and I both advised and edited his applications. We attended auditions and interviews. School college fairs. Advisory meetings are behind us now. I understand when he wants to go out and party with friends, instead of a quiet relaxing evening with the folks. I think it's great that he wants to be more and more independent. Yeah, it's OK that he'd rather spend a Saturday afternoon with a girl instead of hiking with me. I'm over all that. No problems, it's just Part of Living a Full Life.

For the past three or four years I've been preparing for that moment when our son, now 18, liberates us. No more having to provide dinner, or be in town every night so he can get to school every day. We've cooked or ordered 6,570 dinners so far for him, and he's still hungry! We can now travel, unscheduled! We can make love anytime wild and loud! So say all my other empty-nest fathers. I've taken it all in stride and pride -- thinking that we've done an acceptable job so far, after all he's still alive, making pretty great grades, and gotten into a very fine university indeed, thank God. Stiff upper lip, non-emotional male me; everything is in control. That's the kind of guy I am: cool and collected. That moment to come, though, has come. Not one of my fellow fathers warned me of the emotional angle of this traumatic moment. It's nothing I have ever experienced to this dramatic degree ever before.

Last weekend, that "fatherly cool" all came unraveled. There I was in a far-off town with our boy, whoops young man -- father and son quality time. We'd spent the weekend in early orientation sessions. Hours and hours of information, meeting faculty, schmoosing department heads -- the presidential handshake and financial aid officer complementing complete. There we were killing time before the flight home, just me and my man listening to the radio on a distant street watching college students go by, when a certain song came on. "Homeward bound I wish I was ... Homeward bound ... Home, where my thought's escaping ... Home, where my music's playing ... Silently for me..." I began to cry uncontrollably. That Paul Simon song was one I hadn't heard in years, and man oh man did it hit me. He'd be gone soon. Such homesickness ... me, not him so much. I'm not the one leaving home. We won't have to eat precisely at six anymore and dinners will never be the same. Oh no, will we ever see him again? He'll be 30 and I'll be in my 70's ... 40, 50, 60 and then what?! Grandkids? I'll sure miss his sweet cherubic face ... what a cute baby he was! What fun to sit him on my knee and watch cartoons -- Tex Avery's especially.

All my male fortitude and fatherly strength was flooding away, out-of-control, along with my manly rational mind. My strong and stoic fatherly image melting in good-bye images. There was nothing I could do to stop the tears. So I decided that strong men cry too. "We're Human, Men are Emotional, I'm Human. Men cry too -- it's probably healthy. No big deal." I let it rip.

It was a big deal; a very big deal. I cried and cried in a mixture of embarrassment and novelty. There was no logic, no quick-fix manly gate-keeping. Out of my total emotional decompensation, I managed to get out only three words amidst the tears: "I love you."

My boy put his arm around my shoulders, and we looked in each other's eyes. He was weeping too. Then we began sobbing. Then laughing at the thought and the sight of the two of us, such a weepy mess. I put my arm around his shoulders too, and we just cried and cried some more together, father and son. I will never forget that moment. I don't think I can ever bear to hear that song again.

He's going to do so well at college next year. He'll be busy with classes, and making new friends. I'll be busy working hard to pay the tuition, and send him money for more dinners, and dates. My wife and I can have a second honeymoon, without kids! Honestly, though, I will miss him a lot. "That's OK," I logically tell myself. "That's what life is about," I guess. "That's what love is about, happiness and sadness all in one," I tell myself. It's hard, but it's sweet too. Ah, truthfully it's not OK and I'm a manly emotional mess.

I couldn't wait to leave home and my parents when I was my rebellious 18. I didn't cry a tear, and they didn't either. I don't remember ever hearing those three words as I said goodbye. Now, over 30 years later, I'm so proud of growing up and being a father to my sons. It's different now, with this generation. There is so much to be happy about, and I love my wife and sons so much I'm about to cry some more, and that's fine. I'm a fine mess.