How can you miss them if they never go away? 

This time a year ago, my husband and I were busy ordering dorm room linens, choosing meal plans and mulling over course options. Our eldest was headed to college, and as Hubs and I prepared for her departure, we experienced the dual emotions of pain and excitement.

The night before she left, I planned a fancy back-to-school feast and wiped a tear from my eye as we sat down for a final family dinner. It was tough to keep it together. I had known my stepdaughter since she was a wild-haired, helium-voiced fourth-grader. Was this beautiful, independent young woman really the same person I knew back then? Was she truly leaving us and striking out on her own?

I wish I'd known then what was to come — I would have saved the tears for later.

Much to my stepdaughter's dismay, freshman year turned out to be about more than freedom and frat parties. She seemed shocked to discover that her professors expected papers to be turned in on time, and that her roommates weren't cool with dishes left in the sink for weeks on end.

And then there were her R.A.s, who insisted on writing her up for totally minor offenses like taking in a stray kitten, and campus police who littered her windshield with parking tickets, sending us the bill every time she left her car in the wrong lot, which was often. Very, very often.


Meanwhile at home, we gradually adjusted to life with three children in the house instead of four. Bedrooms were swapped. My younger stepdaughter blossomed. I realized that, as hard as it had been to let my eldest go, she was ready to transition to adulthood. She'd chafed under our rules her last two years at home, and college was giving her a taste of what living on her own would really be like.

That taste came to an end when she returned home for the summer to find that, while she had changed, we had not. Despite her objections, Hubs insisted that curfew was still in effect, and her social expenses were now her own responsibility. After a few weeks of denial, the $10 in her bank account brought her back to reality and she landed her first part-time job. Ever since then, things have been going smoothly. Too smoothly, judging by what happened next.

"I'm staying here next year," she announced last week. "I'm going to live at home and go to Nashville Tech."

"Are you sure?" Hubs asked her incredulously.

"Yeah," she replied. "I mean, college was hard. I was alone a lot. And I can't deal with the parking tickets."

Overhearing this conversation from the kitchen, I wanted to call out, "That's called real life, my friend! It's a never-ending series of parking tickets!" but it didn't seem like quite the right moment.

"I'll do a year at Nashville Tech," she continued, "and then I'm going to take some time off ... and write a screenplay."

Oh. Dear. Lord. There are endless books and articles written about empty nesting and how to cope when your child strikes out on her own. But what about full nesting? Where are the advice books for me? Because we're no longer housing the child we used to know: We now have ourselves a hybrid, an in-betweener who expects all the benefits of adulthood and none of the responsibilities.

I've told myself this turn of events isn't that big of a deal, but my friends with teenagers aren't helping. They gasp when I tell them about my stepdaughter's change in plans. "It's your fault, you know," one of them said.

"My fault?!" I sputtered.

"You've made it too easy at home. She'll never leave now. Why should she?"

I start to object, but then I remember that my own husband has glowing memories of living with his parents until he was 26. 26! As far as he's concerned, our children can stay with us forever and write screenplays 'til the cows come home, while I grow old and stoop-backed, picking up their trash, cooking their meals and doing their laundry.

I'm not sure if my stepdaughter has a clear idea yet of her screenplay's subject matter, but I can already imagine the title when she puts the finishing touches on it from the comfort of her childhood bedroom, five or 10 or 40 years down the road: Stepmommie Dearest.

On the bright side, maybe Sandra Bullock will play me ... provided she hasn't left the screen by then and retired to Sarasota.

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