When our daughter, Valerie, was home this summer after her first year away at college, it was much more like hosting a really messy houseguest than having a member of the family living with us.

Actually, this was a good thing – not the messy part – but the sense that she had developed into much more of own person while she was apart from us. But that’s only half of the reason that it felt different having her home. The other part of the equation is that during the time she was gone, Steve and I had begun to be less consumed with being exclusively parents and more interested in learning how to be better partners in our marriage.

This was a conscious effort on our part because last spring when we were thinking about Valerie coming home, although we were looking forward to spending time with her, we knew it would be better for all of us if we didn’t immediately fall into the old routine of getting sucked into whatever angst or drama might be going on in her life at the moment. Or her getting caught up in our world.

As the summer progressed, it became apparent to me that having Valerie home wasn’t going to be all that hard because her attitude about being here had changed. Part of that was because before she left for college a year ago, we had packed up her room. All the gymnastics medals, souvenirs, and books that she wanted to keep but didn’t want to take to school with her were boxed up in anticipation of putting our house on the market and eventually moving.

So she came home to a room but it didn’t really feel like her room anymore. She didn’t have the type of experience that you see in the movies when the adult child moves back home and the parents haven’t changed a thing, all the stuffed animals are still on the bed and favorite dolls are still adorning the shelves.

And the way Valerie approached living here for the summer showed to us that she identified more strongly with her life in Southern California than inPetaluma. She never fully unpacked and moved her stuff back into the closet. She lived like had checked into the Extended-Stay Rustad Hotel.

Except for one thing; hotel guests don’t generally leave their art supplies, shoes, gym clothes, notebooks, library books, jackets, clipboards, receipts and pay stubs strewn throughout the lobby. After all, Valerie is still a teenager and having an opportunity to tweak your compulsively neat mother by spreading your stuff throughout the family room, kitchen and hallway is just too fun to pass up.

It’s a bittersweet time. We know that we won’t ever have the same type of closeness with her that we had when she was younger. But we also know that when we gave her that last hug and waved to her as she drove her packed-to-the-rafters Volvo down the street that she is going back to where she should be. And that is true for us, too.