Parenting is like a long distance run. You are so focused on the race, for such a long time, that when the youngest child heads off to college, it's a big transition not only for the child, but also for the parent or parents who remain behind. What's next?
The transition to the empty nest is one I've helped many clients with over the years. It's also one I've experienced this last year as my youngest daughter headed off to the dorms. For me personally, after 23 years of parenting as a central focus, things changed. They still need you at times. Send money. Sometimes they call or text, and it's important to be there. You also want to give them the emotional freedom to separate from parents, make friends, organize their own life, and have parents step into the background. It's kind of like the National Guard—we’re here if you need us.
As a parent, we have to grieve the loss of an era ended. Just like when our children felt it was uncool to hold our hand, or detected the truth about the tooth fairy. We weren't perfect. We missed some things. We can miss the sweet little child who wrote us love notes, drew us pictures, wanted to go to the park, loved us to read stories, and couldn't wait to play board games. It's okay to miss that.
The empty nest transition is about beginning a different season of your life as well. It's time to reevaluate your own life. It's an opportunity to take a look at your life, and what you may still want to accomplish after launching the children. Do you want to take a different direction with how you spend your time? Would you like to reinvest or reinvigorate your career? Make a difference by volunteering? Improve or change your own relationships? It can be a time to enrich your marriage, or if you are single, maybe you'd like to date again. Perhaps you'd like to deepen your friendships, or add new ones in a way that was harder to do with children still at home?
Perhaps it's time to make a vision board for the goals you may want to create now. It may have been quite a long time since you've thought about how you'd like to further develop yourself. You may want to go back to school to study something you've never had a chance to, or make plans to travel more, want to downsize the house, learn to paint, take cooking classes, or start your own business. If not now, when?
You'll be a good role model if you reinvent yourself some in the empty nest years. You don't want the kids to worry about you not being okay while they are living their life as young adults. Rather than being sad, better to take responsibility for making it a positive transition for yourself. Plus, there are upsides to being an empty nester. I'm reminded of a cute New York Times interview a month or two ago with writer Anne Leary, who is releasing her new novel. She and her husband, actor Denis Leary, are new empty nesters as their two young adult sons recently moved out. She thought it was going to be hard, but they're doing okay and even having some fun with less structure and responsibility. Leary notes that she and her husband never realized how stressful it was to be good role models.
The nest can't stay full forever. Everything changes. Remind yourself that this is the result of successful parenting that your young adults have launched into college. For those of you with a college student or two headed home for spring break, like at our house, It's time to stock up the fridge and welcome the flock home for a while.