Although the Empty Nest Syndrome is not a clinical diagnosis, many parents experience depression, loneliness, and grief after a child grows up and leaves home. It is especially true when the youngest child leaves the nest.
This fall, thousands of eighteen-year-olds will prepare to start their next phase of life and leave doting, caring, loving parents with empty nests and emptier hearts. Over the summer as financial aid packets, campus visits, and roommate selection were completed, parents got busy buying extra-long bed sheets, table lamps, comforters, and pillows and will soon face the end of an era.
I know. I went through this twice. I sent my son off to college ten years ago but I had my baby home. But last week I dropped my daughter off to college in the other side of the country and returned to a quiet home. No prattling about friends, no painting toenails together, no dancing in the kitchen to ABBA. At least until Thanksgiving.
Since March when I realized that she would be leaving home for a school a five-hour-flight away, I became disenchanted with life. I didn’t write any new novels, and my work-in-progress simply wasn’t progressing. The plot didn’t stimulate me and I found no interest in the character arc.
So I sat down and wrote about dealing with The Empty Nest.
For the better part of two decades, you, as parents, have focused all your efforts to bring your child to this stage in life. And now that it’s time to let go, it’s hard. Friends will preach: “You’ve taught them the right values; allow them to stretch their wings.”
Some parents feel overwhelming sorrow for which they may need a doctor. But most can attain fulfilment despite the void your child’s absence creates.
Here’s a list of things you can pursue actively as you make the transition:
1. Stay connected: For the first few months, have your child text you every day. A simple “good morning” will suffice. Or a photo of the dorm room, a selfie with the roommate, an artistic photo of dining hall food (which is never as good as your cooking), the football field—anything will do. Just a ping to let you know they are alive and healthy. And demand a phone call every week, even if it’s just to tell you that they had an okay day, or that they miss you, or that they don’t. It’s more for you than for them, but they owe you. You’re probably paying their tuition. You deserve proof of life.
2. Off-season vacations: Go on trips during late spring and fall when resorts and parks are less crowded, the weather is pleasant, airfares and hotels are reasonable, and dinner reservations are easy. But save some vacation for your child’s holidays because if she visits, you want to make the most of it. Of course, she might be too busy to come home, with internships or jobs or new relationships. You could visit her in her college town—keep it a surprise—and rent an Air B&B. When she finds the dining hall closed for the holidays, tell her you’d be happy to cook her favorite meal; you’re just a ten-buck Uber ride away. Who knows? She might bring a friend. Or a significant other you didn’t know about.
3. Reconnect with your spouse/friends: Go out for a drink on a weeknight; you don’t have to set a “good” example. Pretend to be on a first date with your spouse. Call that fun friend you’ve lost touch with. Put on makeup. Flirt. Eat that chocolate cake without guilt; your kid is busy packing the freshman fifteen. Have that midnight cappuccino. You don’t have to rise early to drop anyone off to school.
4. Visit the dreaded Aunt Muriel: Everyone has that relative who lives three hours away, who no one really likes, but family obligations force you to visit every once in a while. Your kid is not in the backseat complaining she’d rather be spending the weekend with her friends. It’s your Aunt Muriel. You have to face her. Spare your child. You’re someone’s Aunt Muriel. Be the good one.
5. Take up an art class: I took one when my son went to college, even though my little one was still at home. I learned brush strokes with high school kids, college kids who lived at home, empty nesters, and grandmas. All gave advice on how they or their loved ones dealt with a child going to college. We went out for coffee and to art museums. We painted, talked, and shared life stories. The painting supplies are still lying in a pile in the back of my closet; perhaps it’s time to rummage through them.
6. Learn a new skill: Take a community college course. Maybe creative writing, accounts, finance, or computer programming. Learn golfing or take tennis lessons. But do it with other older people during school hours on weekdays, because watching kids smash the ball across the court will remind you of your child and all the tournaments they won. You might get boastful, and no one likes a showoff.
7. Take a yoga class and learn meditation: Don’t pretend you didn’t add pounds or lose your fitness in all those years you took care of your baby. It’s time to put you first. A supple body and a calm mind go a long way toward a happy, healthy life. And if you haven’t already discovered, yoga pants are comfy. You might surprise your kid with a headstand. Perhaps the upside-down view will make sense of your topsy-turvy world.
8. Take up bike riding: Don’t skip this paragraph just because the last time you biked was when you were ten. Since then, your legs have just pressed the gas pedal and brakes as you ferried your kid to and from school activities and extracurriculars. The first few times you bike, your thighs will burn. But the breeze on your face and your improving fitness will make up for it. Or—as I’m planning—get a tandem bike. Let your spouse take the front seat so you can slack off pedaling and go for the ride just for fun. Stop for coffee and a bagel. No one is waiting at home.
9. On big holidays if your child cannot come home: She’s spending Thanksgiving with friends. She’s not shunning your love; she’s finding her place in life. Go watch a movie. Accept the invitation from friends you never see. Invite friends and family and cook a big meal. Volunteer at a school, a hospital, or a soup kitchen. Others’ difficulties will put yours in perspective. Don’t forget to take a selfie and post it to your social media. Tag your child to show you’re doing just fine, even if you’re not. Piling guilt on them will make them resent you.
10. Don’t get a pet: And if you have older, married kids, do not suggest they have a baby. Or if they have a baby, do not take over parenting. Remember your interfering mum-in-law—the pacifier fight, the bath-before-bedtime argument, and the daycare-versus-nanny quarrel. She was trying to do her best for her kid through yours. Don’t be her. If you have a grandkid who could, possibly, perhaps reside in the hole left by your child, just offer to babysit when his parents need it. Because you have yoga class. Besides, nobody could ever replace your child.
But at the end of the day when you’ve tried everything: you had cereal for dinner and finished the bottle of wine and your kid is already asleep on the other coast (or partying) and all your friends and family have given up on you and their advice doesn’t help anyway and visiting your child’s old room only makes you feel worse—take a long, hot shower and cry like a baby.
You’ve done your best.
And that’s enough.
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