Yes, empty-nest syndrome is real. Why does sending my kid to college make me want to cry?

This empty nest thing is going great!

So far I've only almost cried three or four times in the grocery store since the last of my kids went off to college. Tears never actually surfaced; just more of a silent catch in my throat. But if someone asked me to – asked me anything, really – I easily could have bawled.

And the weird thing is, it happens at unexpected times. Or maybe that's not so weird. Maybe this kind of sadness sneaks up on you when you're trying to remember what kind of cheese you're supposed to be shopping for. (I once considered grocery lists a sign of mental weakness, but my wife quickly cured me of that particular notion.)

The feeling is most likely to hit when I am meandering down the cereal aisle and I wonder whether they have the Count Chocula and the Franken Berry out for Halloween yet. (It's early September, but who are we kidding? Costco already has Christmas decorations on display.)

Mind you, I haven't bought Halloween cereal for my kids in several years. And, frankly, I don't remember if I ever did more than a time or two. But it's that couple of times that make me think of the excitement of coming home with sugar-saturated cereal, a special occasion, something other than vegetables, hoping for happiness on their faces. Which, you know, that's always 50-50 at best. It's the successes that keep bringing you back.

Or maybe it's the books on sale that will set me off. You may not think of a grocery store as a book peddler, but there were often "Blue's Clues" tie-in books, things like that. Maybe it was a racket, but it was a good one, and it certainly worked on me. Come home with something like that and it's hail the conquering hero. Sometimes. Again, results were mixed, but solid enough to keep me on the lookout.

There is still a book section, and to be honest I don't even know what's in it. Paperback versions of bestsellers, I think. But if I saw an "Arthur" book I think I'd buy it.

He's ready for college. I'm not. On a college visit with my son it hit me: He's leaving.

An empty nester at last

The funny thing is, I am not the sentimental type. Or so I thought.

I've always been of the belief that when your children head off to college, let 'em go. Of course keep in touch, provide whatever they need, make sure they're happy, all that. But don't dote, and don't visit every other weekend. (All of my four kids attended out-of-state colleges for undergraduate degrees, so that was easier than it might have been.) Let them find their own way.

Stop focusing on test scores. Standardized testing has sucked the life out of learning.

I remember meeting with a professor at a college one of my daughters was visiting. I mentioned something about how I would see her at Thanksgiving or something, and she looked shocked. "Wait, you're not coming to see me?" she asked. Umm, no, hadn't planned on it. You need to go off and do your own thing, without looking over your shoulder.

The professor looked kind of surprised, too.

I've gone through this drill four times, but now that the youngest is off to college in the midwest, it's officially just me, my wife and Buster, the dog. And it's a different kind of quiet.

How long does empty nest syndrome last?

There's no question that it's easier to get things done when it's just us. There's also no question that it's not nearly as fun. Our home runs on a certain amount of necessary chaos, and while it takes a little getting used to, once it's gone everything seems off somehow.

No house, spouse or baby: Should parents worry their kids are still living at home? Maybe not.

There's also something about having all that worry dispatched in so many directions. When even one kid is still home, you can at least check in on her in person. Somehow that makes the worry you harbor about all the others a little easier to manage. But now that she's gone, there's this free-floating anxiety spreading out all over the country, wherever someone is enrolled (or post-graduation working), and nothing to anchor it. It's so thick it probably shows up on weather maps.

Depending on where you look, it seems that empty-nest syndrome, which is indeed a real thing, can last from a couple of months to a year or more.

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But it's all good, as they say. They're off doing what they're supposed to be doing. We're home worrying about them. And not worrying so much about who needs to be where, and when.

When they were all young, what a hassle it was, ferrying them all over the place, trying to meet impossible deadlines. It was enough to drive you crazy, to make you question not only whether or not you're getting this particular thing right, but if you're getting anything about parenting right.

I sure do miss it.

This column first published at The Arizona Republic. Reach Bill Goodykoontz at Facebook: X, formerly known as Twitter: @goodyk.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: I'm an empty nester at last. How long does empty nest syndrome last?