The Empty Nest:
Roots, Wings, Adjustments, and Expectations
Freshman move in day for both of my daughters. How dare they both leave the same day?
With a tinge of nostalgia, I’m watching my younger friends’ Facebook posts this week. It’s that time of year when people are taking their kids to college for the first time, moving them into dorms, and the parents are sadly returning home to their newly empty nest. There are often smiles on the kids’ faces as they pose with their roommates and tears on the parents’ faces as they face the reality their babies are flying the nest.
The pictures have me reminiscing to the day thirteen years ago when we took both of our daughters to Stillwater to check them into their dorms for the first time. They aren’t twins, but the youngest daughter skipped a year of high school, so they left for college at the same time. Fifteen months apart, they started college together, and in the blink of an afternoon, we went from having two kids at home to zero.
As we were standing there watching our daughters walk off together to explore the campus, our reactions were different. My husband wanted to stay rooted to the spot until we couldn’t see them any longer, sadly saying, “I’m just not ready to be through parenting, I didn’t get enough.” We had married when the girls were eleven and twelve, and he loved being a parent, fully immersing himself in homework, school events, and long family dinners.
My perspective was different. Having been a single parent for most of their lives, I was tired. I was ready to sleep a little later and abdicate all cooking-related chores. I was eagerly anticipating seeing the bottom of the laundry basket and NOT having a pile of discarded shoes and wet towels greet me in unexpected places. I loved my kids, but I wasn’t shedding tears; I was prepared for the empty nest. Or so I thought.
The adjustment surprised me. Here’s what I learned, some of it through mistakes, when my nest became empty.
1. Trust your parenting and let them fly.
By the time they leave, you have invested years of teaching life skills and instilling your values. They’re going to make mistakes, but they will learn and grow through them. Don’t be too quick to rescue them from every little thing; have confidence they will figure it out. I remember a friend tattling to my parents that I got sick-drunk at a fraternity party my first week of college. My wise parents calmly replied, “I guess she had to learn the hard way.” They were right, I was so sick-drunk I never drank to that point again!
2. When they do come back, the rules might need to change.
I sent two teenagers off to college, but the next summer two young adults came home for the summer. Young adults who had spent nine months with few rules, making their own decisions, and having no curfew. I was too strict, reverting to high school rules and curfews. They had changed, and I didn’t fully acknowledge or accept it. My consequence was one daughter decided she wouldn’t come home the next summer. I won the battle but lost the war.
3. If you have a partner, communicate your expectations.
I assumed this stage of life would mean my husband and I would finally get a chance to spend evenings alone. I envisioned romantic, candlelit dinners and long talks. He assumed this stage of life meant he could work longer hours and spend more time at the gym. The lack of communication and difference in agendas led to disappointment and disagreements.
4. Make plans for yourself.
I was so used to my evenings being spent cooking, doing laundry, and hovering over homework that I was utterly lost and lonely the first semester. I soon realized my happiness was up to me and found a running group, a book club, and friends who also were newly minted empty nesters. Find a hobby, make new friends, rediscover who you are beyond the role of parent.
5. Focus on all the positive changes the empty nest can bring.
Of course, you’ll miss your baby, but there is a whole world of possibilities waiting for you. Their empty room can eventually become your exercise room, writing getaway, or artist studio. You might decide to write a book, compete in triathlons, or drive Route 66 in a red convertible. It’s your turn now!
6. I realized I loved this stage of parenting.
I enjoyed sending them “real” letters and care packages. I loved visiting them on campus, my alma mater. I loved watching them becoming independent, making friends, and finding their path in life. Our relationship of parent and child also began transitioning to friendship, a nice shift.
7. You think your nest is empty, but it never truly is.
In the beginning, they come back for occasional weekends, holidays, and, if you’re really lucky, the summer break! They each earned two degrees, moved back to Tulsa, live close by and thankfully, they visit often. No, we don’t share a home any longer, but it’s really the best of both worlds: independent adults who return for Sunday family dinner but leave at the end of the evening.
8. If you’re still sad and can’t seem to shake the empty nest blues, try closing your eyes and envisioning a thirty-year-old unemployed “child” sleeping on the couch all day, playing video games all night, and expecting you to feed and clothe him.
Got that picture in your mind? Now be happy they went to college; you’re welcome.
I will admit when they left for college, it was an end to an era, but it was also the beginning of a new one. I had a few rough bumps along the path to adjusting but eventually learned to love it. Every stage of parenting has unique challenges and joys; find a way to embrace each one. But it’s understandable if you shed a few tears as you drive away seeing your two-year old disguised as a new college student in the rear-view mirror. Just keep the box of tissues close by.
“There are two lasting bequests we can give to our children; one is roots, the other is wings.” Unknown source
Their first day of school as first and second graders. So cliché’ but seriously, where did the years go and did I really have such dark hair without the aid of Clairol?