Yes, it seems trite, but the old adage is true: time does fly. One day you’re digging out crushed fish crackers between the car seat and stepping on Legos in the dark of the night, and the next week you’re hauling boxes up five flights of stairs to your child’s freshman dorm room. Four years ago we dropped our youngest child off at college and were officially empty nesters. I had time to prepare for this moment, having sent our oldest off three years before. I immersed myself in books on the transition, do-and don’t-articles, and musings from those who had traveled this path before me.
I now have four years under my belt with this bird nest business and have learned some lessons that may be helpful to you as you embark on this journey.
It’s Not All About You
Your child is heading off to college, the military, or to a job across the country. You begin to count the months and then days. While it’s easy to fall into the woe-is-me trap as you anticipate empty nest, keep the focus on your son or daughter and empathize with the emotions they likely are feeling: excitement, apprehension and nervousness.
Be supportive and upbeat, and start to transition into being a mentor. Address your feelings in private. Our young adults have enough going on during this phase without handling our emotions. Guilt trips — intentional or not — are not our friend during this period. Savor this time before your child heads off and look for opportunities to have fun, keeping it light.
Accept Your Emotions
This period can be filled with mixed emotions: grief for what is no more, but also excitement over the possibilities. This is all normal. You’re not in this alone and there are an abundance of resources to support you as you go through this transition. Books are a great place to start and friends are a godsend, but there are also blogs, magazine articles and talks on this topic that may be helpful.
Your children want to be independent and that’s a good thing. Imagine if they didn’t want to leave. Envision them sitting on the sofa playing video games and eating from a bag of chips at age 30, with no goals and without an inkling of moving out. Not good. You’ve done a great job and your children have aspirations. So much to be grateful for. Woohoo!
Have a Game Plan
You know it’s coming and you have time to prepare. Having a game plan before they leave is critical. Evaluate how you’re spending your time and what you find pleasurable and don’t. If you love your work, you’ve got a great start; if you don’t like your job or aren’t working, consider getting a job or shifting to a new one, or volunteering.
Discover new interests, take some classes or maybe even return to college. Start new projects around the house, tackling some of the tasks you couldn’t do when you were shorter on time. Once they’ve left, organizing and cleaning your child’s room can be a worthy first step. One of my tedious projects was to organize all the Legos back into their kits. Yes, I questioned my sanity in tackling this onerous task, but for some reason it was therapeutic.
I remember when my son was soon to graduate from high school and I ran into an acquaintance in the grocery store who was a recent empty nester. She ranted about how she hated it, how she and her husband weren’t connecting, and how life in general was now miserable without the kids. I left skid marks for the check out, going through my mental checklist, my game plan.
Step one: Hang out with friends going through the same stage who are generally upbeat. Check. Step two: Be grateful my husband and I remained close during the more frantic kid-centric stage, and find ways to strengthen our relationship. Check. Step three: Reconnect with friends I haven’t spent a lot of time with. To do. It might be an empty nest (kid-wise), but I was determined to make it a damn good nest with friends and family. Now is the time to foster your relationships and build your new nest.
Creating a fun, treat-filled care package for your son or daughter during their first week at college (and periodically thereafter) is a super way of focusing on others and spreading a bit of kindness. At the same time, identify family, friends and neighbors who may find joy in receiving a package, card or thoughtful email. This is also an optimal time to practice random acts of kindness towards your husband or partner.
Be Engaged, Not Needy
When I went to college, communication was a weekly phone call to my parents while tethered to a avocado green phone cord, or a periodic letter sent via snail mail. I relished my independence. Now we’re able to communicate with our kids via phone, text, FaceTime and social media — all great mediums, yet can be overused.
Every young adult is different and what worked for my son didn’t necessarily jive with my daughter and vice versa. Our son seemed to look forward to the weekly FaceTime call, whereas our daughter didn’t like that idea. Generally speaking, both kids preferred texting, as it’s short and doesn’t involve the five-minute rapid-fire-questions conversation with mom. And, through trial and error, I learned what worked and didn’t work as I strived to be engaged and interested in their new lives, but not annoying and needy. I found the combination fact-and-question text the most successful for engagement.
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