May 2008
Emptier Nest? Open a New Window

by Annie Fox, M.Ed.

They just went ahead, thumbed their noses at Peter Pan, and grew up.
Lemon Buds

“I’ve been hugging her a lot,” my friend Gayle said when I asked how she was preparing for her college-bound daughter’s departure.

“Savoring the moments,” I nodded. “That’s nice.”

“I wouldn’t put it that way,” Gayle cut to the chase. “Last night after dinner, when she got up and said she was taking a shower I just couldn’t control myself.”

“Did you follow her into the bathroom?”

“Worse. I threw my arms around her and held on so tight that she couldn’t move. I’ve been doing that a lot lately. Pathetic, huh?”

High School Graduation“No,” I reassured her. “Look, she’s your only child, and you’ve been really focused on her for almost 18 years. It’s totally understandable that you’re sad she’s leaving.”

At the “L” word, Gayle winced, but I plunged ahead. “You and Ben have done an incredible job raising her. She’s intelligent. Kind. And if she wasn’t self-confident she wouldn’t be so excited about going to college 3,000 miles away.”

Mentioning the distance caused Gayle’s face to contort.

“Sweetie, you’ve got to refocus some of this energy into something new, because if you don’t, you’re both going to be really unhappy during your last summer together.”

Oops. That did it. Gayle eyes welled up. Sigh. Kids grow up. And if that’s not one of the toughest facts of life to swallow, what is?

Gayle knows I understand. I’m a mom even though the genetic evidence is far away at the moment. Our daughter’s trekking around Cambodia and our son is teaching in Malaysia. But even when they complete their respective adventures they’re not coming home due to the simple fact that they don’t live here anymore. No, we didn’t kick them out. Nor did they leave in a huff. They just went ahead, thumbed their noses at Peter Pan, and grew up.

Did you catch the fine print on your child’s birth certificate? It read:

“You’ve got just 18 years to prepare this child to become a fully-functioning independent adult who can make their own lunch and have their own life. Good luck. Time starts… NOW!”

Nostalgic memories of the past - Photo by David FoxThat’s the mission we signed up for. And no amount of nostalgia for bedtime snuggles or Saturday morning soccer games will bring back those fun times. Did we love being the center of their Universe and the source of their comfort and encouragement? Absolutely! Do I sometimes miss it when I see a mom walking hand in hand with her toddler? Yep! I’m also unashamed to admit that I sobbed like a deranged woman after dropping off each of our kids as a college freshman. But I pulled it together quickly because I’d already opened a window in my life while they were growing up. So when they started their new chapters… I had more time for mine. While everyone’s new chapter is completely and wondrously different, I can happily report that as our nest has gotten emptier… my life has become fuller.

In case you’re wondering, our loving, smart, and spirited little girl and her equally awesome little brother, are still all that. They’re now both twenty-somethings, out in the world, living their lives. But they check in with us regularly for a sweet taste of “home” which is always right here for them in large helpings.

If your teen is leaving for college this fall, congratulations for the support you’ve provided toward her reaching this milestone. As an acknowledgement gift, here are some tips for your next chapter. If you’re not there yet, these tips will help you continue preparing for your emptier nest.

Tips — Preparing for an Emptier Nest

  • Create some new goals — What would you do with at least one extra hour a week just for yourself? Learn something new? Tackle a creative project? Set a professional goal? Identify a physical challenge you’d like to meet? Make the goal important (to you) and get started now. If you chose well, working on your goal will sustain you on many levels when your child leaves the nest.
  • Open a new window... photo by Annie Fox
    Open a new window...
    Make some new friends — The friends of most parents are the parents of their kids’ friends. While kids are growing up, these adult friendships help parents bond and compare notes. But looking ahead as a parent with grown-up kids, it makes sense to nurture some “non-kid-centered” friendships. Following your own interests (see above) can connect you with new friends who share those interests.
  • Revitalize your relationship — A couple’s dynamic changes when the kid(s) graduate(s). Plan for your emptier nest now. Talk to your partner about “Our life as a couple, post-kids.” Support each other’s feelings about the changes. Discuss ways you can improve communication. Schedule fun time together as a couple. Hopefully you’ll rediscover what’s at the core of your relationship and create a healthy and exciting new chapter.
  • Re-focus on your social life — If you’re single and you’re interested in dating, but haven’t as yet because of parenting obligations, now may be the time to start letting friends know that you’re “looking” again. A large percentage of couples report that they were introduced by mutual friends!
  • Call a family meeting — Do it before graduation and give everyone an opportunity to talk honestly about this big change. How does each family member feel about “Josh” going away? Talk about opportunities for everyone in the family to stay connected to the new college student and to each other.
  • Avoid over-parenting your younger children — It won’t make you miss “Josh” less and it’s very likely to cause push-back from your at-home child. Of course you need to continue parenting, but redirecting all of your energy toward your younger kid(s) spells trouble.
  • Be aware of the emotional impact on siblings — Without the older one as a parental buffer and confidante, younger one(s) may feel off-balance and too much on their parent’s radar screen (see above). Encourage siblings to talk about their relationship before graduation and what the separation is going to mean. Things will change, but they’ll figure it out and email, texting, and IM exchanges will help enormously.

I just got a follow up email from Gayle. I checked in with her yesterday to find out how she was feeling after our talk. Here’s what she had to say:

“Right now I’m really excited—for her and us. Obviously, that fluctuates day-by-day, moment-by-moment. She’s a great kid and I’m very lucky to have her in my life. I’ll continue to have her in my life, but in a very different way. I do my best to celebrate that.”

Gayle rocks!

In friendship,

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