I knew when my first child left home for college that I would miss him—his smile, his hugs, cooking out by the pool, binge watching a favorite show. I knew I would miss watching him wrestle with his little brother or help his little sister with her homework. I knew I would feel an ache every time I set five places at the table instead of six.

Still, when the day came, I cried, and I felt sad, but even then I didn’t really understand what it meant to say goodbye when my husband and I dropped our son off at his college dorm. After all, I had weathered saying goodbye to all the other phases of his childhood—always sad to see one stage end but excited to see another begin. Letting go and moving on was nothing new to me. It’s what mothers do. But what I didn’t know was that the leaving home goodbye is about so much more than simply moving on to the next phase.

This goodbye isn’t at all like the other changes we mothers endure—the change from baby to toddler, toddler to child, or child to teen. The leaving home goodbye is the most profound because when a child leaves home, what it means to be a family changes. Sure, I knew when he left things would change, it just hadn’t occurred to me that they would never be the same.

The redefining of my family began when our eldest started college in 2014 and will continue until 2023 when my last little chick leaves the nest. With each college drop off, there will be a shifting, a readjusting, a new dynamic that will alter how all of us live and relate to one another.

Of course, this can be said of every stage of parenting. When our first child was born, my relationship with my husband was forever (and for better) altered. With each new baby we adjusted and readjusted, making room in our home and our hearts for a new little person. As our children grew, my husband and I changed how we spent our time and our money and how we interacted with them and with each other. The nature of family life is constant change.

Yet, none of these changes had prepared me for the slow, steady dismantling of the life I love—a life surrounded by all of my children. Yes, I know that these changes—college, internships, jobs—are good and necessary and exactly they way it’s supposed to be. But it doesn’t always feel that way. Sometimes when all of my children are home for a weekend or holiday or special occasion, when we all linger at the dinner table or go for hike or go to church together, when I lie down at night with the peaceful assurance that all of my children are safe under our roof, I can’t help but think that this, this loud, chaotic, laughing, loving mess, is how it’s supposed to be. Not just a few times a year but always and forever. And the knowledge that our time of living all together as a family is over, takes my breath.

But then there are other times.

There are also the times when it isn’t just my husband and kids and me. There are, and have always been, summers and holidays and special occasions when my family is surrounded by even more family. I watch as my dad, the same man who used get on the floor with my children and build elaborate block cities, pours my grown son a glass of wine and listens to him talk about the old house he’s fixing up. I watch my mom and my daughters look at the photos of our girls’ beach trip—three generations of women laughing all the way to the Gulf. My son’s girlfriend walks through the door with her beautiful smile and a homemade pie, and I realize that my own daughter isn’t the only one I’ve missed while she’s away at school. Or I lie in bed and listen to my kids and their cousins playing cards and telling stories and laughing way too loud for such a late hour.

In these moments, I know that some of the best memories of my 20+ years of parenting have been times like these—time spent in the loud, loving, laughing, chaotic company of our family, extended family, and friends.

It’s also these times, when I know that all the moving on, all the nest-leaving, and the regrouping aren’t a dismantling of my family, but a restructuring, eventually even an expanding, of this life I love.

So, yes, I miss my kids. I miss the time when all of them were home and our family shared a daily life together. A part of me will always grieve that those days are over. But I also know that those days of living and loving under one roof are the foundation on which new families will be formed—families of brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents who, if I am as fortunate as my parents, will sometimes come together under my roof where the joy of family life will be multiplied exponentially.

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Laura Hanby Hudgens

Laura is a junior high teacher and a freelance writer. She lives on a buffalo farm in the Arkansas Ozarks where she enjoys cooking and baking, which is also the key to bringing her busy family together. Her work has appeared on The Washington Post, Huffington, Post, Grown and Flown, Aleteia, ChurchPOP, and elsewhere. Find out more about Laura here.