'I dread the day this house stops being home'

This week, like thousands of other parents across the country, Markie Robson Scott will say goodbye to her children as they leave home to go to university for the first time. Should she reclaim her 'empty nest', or mourn the end of motherhood?
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It's 4pm. Upstairs, in the attic, Matthew, 18, is thumping out drum'n'bass on his decks. Downstairs, in the kitchen, Will, 20, is cooking pasta for three of his friends. The house buzzes with noise: conversations are shouted, furniture is dragged around above me, televisions blast, radios blare and mobiles bleep. The house is a cacophony of teenage life.

It's 4pm. Upstairs, in the attic, Matthew, 18, is thumping out drum'n'bass on his decks. Downstairs, in the kitchen, Will, 20, is cooking pasta for three of his friends. The house buzzes with noise: conversations are shouted, furniture is dragged around above me, televisions blast, radios blare and mobiles bleep. The house is a cacophony of teenage life.

Soon, these familiar daytime sounds will cease. This week, both my sons' gap years will come to an end and they will leave home for the first time, to begin their university courses. Not only will the house fall strangely silent; their departure will also mean an end to the ceaseless washing and folding of jeans, T-shirts and boxers; there will be no more shopping for multi-packs of mango juice; no more peering gingerly into their rooms and grumbling about the "floordrobe" situation. The two rooms in the attic, theirs for the 11 years we've lived in this house, will be empty for months at a time.

It's unimaginable. Even though I've been thinking about it - dreading it, in fact - for the past year, the date has arrived with a sickening abruptness. Over the year (or in Will's case, years) since the boys finished school, we've seen a lot of each other. I've grown used to them sleeping until one o'clock in the afternoon, while I work downstairs. I like taking a lunch break with a hungover son or two, discussing The Sopranos or Kill Bill and listening to tales of clubland. Of course I'm glad they're going out into the world, but most of the time I'd rather have them around.

In the meantime, like so many mothers and fathers across the country who have also packed their kids off to college, I'll tidy and vacuum their rooms - I'm even looking forward to that, sadly - but otherwise, I'm not changing anything. I certainly won't be taking up Peter Jones's new Empty Nester consultation service on furnishing and design, where in-house decorators and advisers are dispatched to "reclaim" our homes.

Having got shot of the children, their literature seems to suggest, I should waste no time in maximising the redundant space. Why not, they suggest, turn it into a library, a hobby room or an entertainment centre? Or, at least, "give them a deadline to see if they still want their things before you de-clutter".

Maybe I'm just being sentimental, but the notion of "placing all old toys, books, CDs, tapes and clothes in decorative boxes and putting them away in the loft" seems a particularly brutal wrench. Nevertheless, I don't want the boy's rooms to look like shrines to a lost childhood. What am I supposed to do with my empty nest?

The subject excites an extraordinarily emotional response in just about everyone I ask. "Our mistake was to do up Emma's room during her last year at school," says one friend, who went through the same process last year. "There's a lovely double bed for her and her boyfriend, and even a jukebox in there. But now, even though she's hardly ever here, she wants it left just the way it is, while I wish we'd made it more like a study."

Another friend recalls the arguments that ensued after letting another school-age son take over the semi-vacant space when her daughter went to Leeds. It was a disaster: the daughter was furious, huge family rows flared up, and she ended up reclaiming her room.

The advice of the parenting expert Doro Marden is not to act too rapidly. You may need the space desperately, you may need to rent out the room - but make sure you discuss it carefully first, otherwise it's bound to backfire on your relationship with your child.

The same view is held by Karen Levin Coburn and Madge Lawrence Treeger in Letting Go: A Parent's Guide to Understanding the College Years (Amazon, £6.99). "Parents may later be surprised when their children are hurt or angry at finding their rooms redone or taken over; their reaction seems out of synch with their self-proclaimed independence. But, when everything else is changing in their lives, their room and their childhood memorabilia represent grounding and continuity."

You must let your kids leave you, rather than throw them out, says Barbara Brown, a New York psychologist whose two sons went to college last year. Nevertheless, she admits finding "terrific pleasure" in tidying one son's room. "I got to sort of celebrate him, smell his things, touch what had meant a lot to him - with the added benefit of getting his desk cleared so I could use it as my office."

The joy of a tidy room can't disguise the fact that when your children go to university, it's the start of the leaving process, even though it's a gradual one. And I'm getting the double whammy. Most families get time to adjust - one child leaves home, followed by the other a few years later. "It changes the shape of the family when the first one leaves," Doro Marden says. "You're not all sitting round the table in the same way. I had a year of having just one daughter at home, after two had gone - it was like having an only child."

The psychologist Dr Janet Reibstein says: "It's a period of adjustment, with losses and benefits. You start to be a different kind of parent. It's the end of total maternal preoccupation, when you're thinking about them all the time. Letting go of that level of detail is difficult, but freeing."

The loss is in the details. "You open the kitchen cupboards and they're full of items that are surplus to requirements," says a friend. "Cookie cutters in the shape of animals. A waffle iron, a toasted-sandwich maker. And the grocery bill shrinks. Nutella and ketchup are no longer essential."

As for her sons' room: "It's the largest room in the house, with a large bay window, and we'd like to turn it into our library. I think I'll take down the Tibetan prayer flags one son tacked across the window five years ago. They're dingy rags now, and I've already suggested that we remove them, but he didn't want to risk unkarmic action.

"But I can't imagine not keeping a room for the boys with lots of their stuff in it. Over the years, we've cleaned out the games and the soft toys and the school art and put them in labelled boxes in the garage, but I would never throw them away. I think it's really important to know your family home will always be a refuge when you need it."

"Refuge" - the word is like a dagger to my heart, because I'm leaving the empty nest within weeks of my sons' departure. We're moving to New York. They'll come, too, in the holidays, our house here will still be there for them when they need it, and I'll make frequent trips home. But there's no getting away from the fact that I won't always be available to provide - I like to think - the backbone of the refuge.

Janet Reibstein moved from Cambridge to Exeter when her eldest son went to university. She says: "If you're moving at the same time as moving on from your role as full-time parent, you've got to process that as well. It complicates things, it's more exhausting, and you're less conscious of the impact of the loss. When it finally hits you, you tend to overreact."

I'm overreacting already, according to my sons. Will the house remain a viable home with only the lodger in it? "We can shop, you know, Mum," says Will when I tell him how worried I am about their ability to cope without me. "I've never seen you shop," I reply. No, I've been micro-managing for so long that perhaps the only way to stop is to escape to the other side of the ocean. I'm much more involved in my sons' lives than my parents were with mine at this age.

A friend of mine in New York agrees: "We're so much closer and kinder to our children than our parents were, so they're more inclined to want to live with us again. Who wouldn't want to? Clean clothes, food, fussing, sorting out phone bills, making doctor's appointments..." She says she's downsizing when her younger son goes to college next year, selling their big suburban house and moving to an apartment. "I do worry about having to stick both boys in a shared room after we move. But I've been an obsessive, over-involved mom for 20 years; now I'm done. The broad base of the parenting pyramid narrows down to a tiny point of simple affection and respect - that's all I ask, that's all they'll get."

And it's not as though parenting ends when the children leave. Adrienne Katz, the chief executive of the children's charity Young Voice, remembers "channelling motherliness into little tasks" for her son and daughter when they were at university. "I sent parcels of food, in particular a fruit and nut loaf that kept for weeks; and passion fruit, because the drier and more wrinkly it is on the outside, the better it is inside; and their favourite cough medicines - weird things that only a parent would do, and which let them know that you had them in mind.

"I was thrilled at seeing them excited and doing things they wanted to do, rather than mourning their loss. We were as close as before, we'd talk every couple of days on the phone. And my husband found a new, stronger role as a dad, heaving furniture and renting vans, while I was cooking dishes for them in their new flats. My daughter leaves all her stuff here - I'm still stumbling over things, we're a repository of junk - but I don't really mind."

Another friend whose son left home five years ago and now works abroad says: "Mothering's like an ailment. Not having a little person who needs you, or a larger person who puts up with you and needs your money and driving skills, is very sad."

However, she's using his room to write in. "I've taken down the posters of Hendrix, Trainspotting and the Amsterdam cannabis café, and I've concentrated all his belongings in a large wardrobe and a bookcase. There's still a bottle of vodka, a can of Stella and two bongs in the bookcase."

The first drop-off at college is the worst part, many parents say. The tension, the lugging of stereos and saucepans across the car park, and then sometimes the flood of phone calls while children learn to cope with the new stresses of living with their peers. "She was terribly homesick for a whole term," says a friend. "I expect she was really functioning fine socially, but she had no intimate person to download her insecurities on." Another says: "He phoned me almost every day, worrying about where he was going to live in his second year, even though he'd only just got there."

It's not all about the mums. It comes as no surprise to discover that dads are even less prepared for the emotional fallout. One father I know was on antidepressants for a while after his first son went to university. "I'd been having words with myself for months," a friend remembers, "reminding myself that Tom really was going to Manchester." Her husband, however, was in denial. "He'd managed to blank it out until we were actually leaving the car park outside the halls of residence. He looked very confused, then aghast, then started crying."

What fun it sounds. "It seems to be the last time you ever act as parents, so enjoy the moment," says a friend, with heavy irony. I'll try.