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Free At Last!

Most parents say good-bye to their kids one at a time. But Stephanie Furstenau Asklof, a middle-school vice principal in Des Moines, Iowa, is the mother of twins. So last month she had the bittersweet pleasure of emptying the family nest in a single swoop when she and her husband dropped off daughters Adrienne and Tori at Northwestern University. Driving back home afterward, Asklof says, "I probably cried about halfway across Illinois." Now, as she slowly adjusts to a quiet house, she's grateful to be distracted by work and is still not sure what comes next. "I've got a chance to reinvent myself," says Asklof, 52. But how?

For baby-boomer parents, life without kids often feels like suddenly slamming on the brakes after years in the fast lane. They're the healthiest, wealthiest and best-educated generation of parents in human history, and they've poured their energy into making sure that their kids got the best of everything, from soccer camp to SAT-prep classes. Now they're facing a mass exodus from the nest. Over the next few years the number of high-school graduates will rise steadily to a peak of 3.2 million in 2008, the largest class ever. A majority of those students will head for college, many of them to schools more than 100 miles away. And their goodbyes will echo through emptier hallways than their parents' farewells in the 1960s and '70s because they are more likely to be only children or one of a pair.

The specter of divorce looms large. Nearly 30 percent of 18-year-olds come from single-parent families, which means greater separation anxiety for parents (and kids) because there's really no one at home to talk to. Even in two-parent families, couples often face an unaccustomed silence across the dinner table without kids to make constant conversation. Some discover new ways to reinvigorate their marriages--moving from the suburbs to the city or planning a romantic holiday in Tuscany. But others struggle. Psychologists who study marriage say the first year without kids is typically the second most stressful adjustment in a marriage; ironically, the only more perilous period is the first year of parenthood.

In the old days, schools did next to nothing to prepare parents for the empty nest. It was, "Goodbye, honey," and back to the highway. But now the transition has become so fraught that many colleges have begun adding special sessions for parents to the freshman orientation schedule. The goal is to convince mom and dad that letting go is a good thing--even if it means that their kid might make a few mistakes along the way. High on the agenda is parents' overuse of e-mail, IMs, cell phones and pagers. "We advise against e-mailing hourly," jokes Christine Schelhas-Miller, Cornell's associate dean of students. Technology makes it possible to keep tabs on kids 24/7, but parents can get frustrated when their sons or daughters never answer their cell phones (a hint: they could be letting the call go to voice mail when the home number pops up on the screen). Instead, Schelhas-Miller, coauthor of "Don't Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money," suggests setting up a regular schedule--calling on Sunday night, for example, so everyone knows what's expected. She also advises against redoing the bedroom for a while.

Some schools choreograph the farewells. At Washington University in St. Louis, parents get two and a half days of orientation, ending with a moving send-off. In August, New Yorkers Mark and Andrea Turnowski stood on the quad with thousands of other parents holding glow sticks the school had distributed as a salute to the parade of new freshmen, including their daughter, Rachel, 18. "I thought the symbolism of the event was a nice transition," Mark Turnowski says. "They made it comfortable for you to say goodbye." Karen Levin Coburn, Washington's assistant vice chancellor for students (and an empty nester herself), says the school has come to recognize that this is a major shift for the whole family. "No matter how active parents are, and this is mothers and fathers, there's this sense that this very important role in their lives, this day-to-day parenting role, is over," she says.

After the first few weeks many parents find that it's not so bad to live in a clean, peaceful house with only one load of laundry a week. "What has surprised me is how happy some parents are to be empty nesters," says New York child psychiatrist Alvin Rosenfeld, author of "The Over-Scheduled Child." "They really say, 'OK, I'm done with it. I don't have to rush between ice hockey and soccer." That's especially true for working mothers, who no longer feel so torn. Gwendolyn Wright, an architecture professor at Columbia University, began preparing a year ago by taking on new responsibilities as cohost of the PBS series "History Detectives." She felt ready for the transition last month when her daughter, Sophia Bender, 17, left for the University of Chicago. When she thinks about her daughter and herself at this stage, Wright says, "The overwhelming feeling is one of pride and happiness."

In the past, the empty nest often seemed toughest on stay-at-home moms, who made raising children their career. That's still true, but now many say they also see a chance for a new start. A few weeks ago, Shanda Schneider of Glenview, Ill., sent her youngest daughter, Molly, 18, off to Northwestern University, where big sister Kate, 20, is a junior. Schneider, 46, worked as a clinical-nurse specialist until her girls were 4 and 2; since then she's been home. As Molly's departure grew closer, she made plans. In March, she joined a gym and took up knitting. And last month she started commuting to DePaul University to get a master's degree in public service. Planning her new life was important, she says, because her husband, Joseph, 51, a surgeon, works long hours. "He loves the idea that I'm going to school," she says. "He says, 'Now I have three girls in college!' "

Fathers are often more likely than mothers to feel pangs of regret rather than euphoria. "It's very common for this to sink in for the fathers after the fact," says Coburn. In her book, "Letting Go: A Parents' Guide to Understanding the College Years," Coburn describes one father who kept his son's dirty track shoes in the front hall. Other fathers may feel they've lost their buddy or basketball partner. Sophia Bender's father, Thomas, a history professor at New York University, says one of the "everyday emptinesses" he feels is at breakfast, when the family would read The New York Times and chat. He's appropriately taking the historical perspective, comparing this transition to others in his life as a parent--like when Sophia didn't have to be walked to school anymore. As a fourth grader, he recalls, "she was quite enthused to be liberated." But he missed the walks. Then, as now, "something you enjoy disappears."

Despite rough moments in the first few weeks, most parents usually have settled into a routine by Thanksgiving, just in time for another rite of passage: the First Visit Home. Parents may be looking for quality time, but the kids are usually eager to hang out with their high-school friends. Mark Turnowski, who's been through the drill with his older daughter, Lauren, 25, says the best approach is to welcome them home without too many restrictions on their time. "Parents are there for warmth and security," he says, "and then you have to step away." That gives them the space they need to stand on their own--and make their parents proud.