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Empty Nest Syndrome: The End, or A Beginning?

When my daughter went off to college, I thought I was going to cry my head right off my shoulders. It was ridiculous. My baby! The night before we took her to the college campus on a sweltering August Saturday, I watched her packing in her bedroom. “This is the last night my baby girl will live at home…..she’ll be home most weekends, but it’ll never be the same again…” I commiserated. And it wasn’t. And I grieved. And I discovered something. I eventually got over it. For five of her years (toddlerhood until first grade), I was a divorced, single parent. We had a very close bond. But I also had many interests and pursuits, and it was those that I held on to and kept me from going crazy when I found myself rattling around a too-quiet house after she went off to college. What began as echoing silences, transitioned into me finding a new place for myself…I took on more interests, I discovered, unapologetically, that I liked not having to pick up after or cook for a teenager or spend hours nightly on a child’s homework.

I resolved I wasn’t going to be one of those intrusive moms “dropping in” on their child’s college dorm at 6 PM on a Friday night or relentlessly calling her five times a day, and I tried not to be needy or emotional when she drove off in her little rattletrap of a car for the drive back to the dorm at the end of a too-quick weekend. Okay, sometimes I did cry. And when she did come home, it wasn’t the same. She was no longer my cherished little girl, but a young woman. It changed from mother-daughter to twinges of two women in the same house, and it really showed itself in the kitchen, of all places. My daughter is an accomplished cook and runs her kitchen like a surgical suite. My idea of cooking is a Stouffer’s frozen something or other tossed absentmindedly in the nukerator. If it’s hot and has my prerequisite half a cup of salt doused on it, throw it at me and I’ll eat it. Ask me what’s for dinner and I’ll give one of two responses: A) You cook and I’ll clean, or B) Reservations. We found ourselves experiencing the awkward “too many chefs in the kitchen” syndrome and I had to back the heck off, and realize I wasn’t the boss anymore, she had her own autonomy, she was actually capable and smart as a whip and didn’t need mom’s help for anything.

College passed in a hurry, and four years later, she wore a cap and gown and then a gown with satin and roses and a veil, a mere 3 weeks later. And now, my baby girl really was gone…replaced with a beautiful young woman. And it was up to me to construct how I chose to look at it because I could collapse in grief and tears, or I could get on with it and evolve – because she sure wasn’t sitting around waiting for me to get with the program. Did I lose my darling baby girl, or did I gain a beautiful and funny adult daughter who is also a friend? I had to choose the latter. I realized something in that transition - - the little girl who loved Barbies was actually a crushingly smart, hilarious, serious, financial whiz and one tough cookie and was someone I downright admired when I dried the tears and made myself look at her as an adult. She did adult-ing pretty darned good, too! And I knew then, that I was going to have to grow and change and evolve, too, and learn to let go, if I wanted to hold on to her. I didn’t have the right to hold my child responsible for my happiness, and our relationship would change and I’d have to let go of the idea of my “little girl” and get my own life and not hold her responsible for filling it up. I totally bombed it one emotional weekend as I stood on the front porch nearly sobbing as she looked at me, started her packed car, and then my own emotionality made her cry with guilt as she drove away. I realized I didn’t have the right to do that to her and resolved she wouldn’t see me do that again.

I’ve talked with a lot of people who have struggled with what we often refer to as “empty nest syndrome”. A common conclusion is that, for many parents and marriages that were structured around their children’s lives, the echo that remained when the grown children left home was a gaping hole that never quite was healed or filled again. Couples, who spent nearly two decades running as fast as possible trying to keep up with their children’s lives, often at the cost of the quality of the marital relationship, now found themselves sitting in a therapist’s office, staring blankly at each other, with little to say and no passion or curiosity left for each other. They, as I once did, asked themselves, “Is this an end, or a new beginning?” The answer to that question is dependent on how you look at it. Your relationship with your young adult child will, must, change. That 22 year-old is no longer a 10 year-old. This can be a fun time to develop some new interests together. That person on the other side of your bed…who are they, again? That relationship may change as well, now that there are no kids at home that provide sometimes a distraction from each other, intentional or not. It can be freeing and fun to now realize that you basically have the house to yourselves again. When I earned my masters degree, I turned a cobwebbed, unused daughter’s bedroom (that I had been relentlessly saving for her, complete with her ballet outfits still hanging in the closet, if you can believe it) into a no-nonsense professional home office, complete with diplomas on the wall. It was a transition. Sometimes a couple starkly realizes that the distraction their children served while at home, feels like too deep a chasm to fill, now that they are grown and moved away from home. People are living older and more vibrantly than ever before; fifty is the new forty. It’s easier to stay in touch with our grown children now, with social media, cell phones, and the Internet. Psychologist Dr. Karen Fingerman studied parent-adult child relationships and found that, overall, the relationship improved after the child achieved independence and autonomy, with less parenting stressors and more quality factors in the changed relationship.

It is important to allow some grieving over what may feel like a loss, and then to take a hard look at what your life can be, now that you are not saddled with daily, often hourly, parenting tasks. Travel, cooking, writing, fitness, starting a book club, leading a group in your church, volunteering in the neighborhood school, oil painting, and any number of other activities are excellent ways to not so much “fill up your empty time”, but to bring excitement, meaning, purpose to the life of an empty-nester parent. College campuses are now filled with non-traditional adult students; I went back to college several years after becoming an empty-nester, only this time, I was able to finally do it on a full-time basis where I could not have and refused to do while raising a child.

Setting goals, building new friendships, finding new shared experiences with your spouse after all those years, are wonderful ways of bringing creativity and quality to your life. Your adult children are finding their independence – but so are you. No apologies for removing futons and rock star posters out of an echoing bedroom and turning it into your study, yoga room, she-shed or man cave. You are now free to travel (no diaper bags!), work on that degree you’ve dreamed of for years (try not to giggle when the 18 year-olds stare open-mouthed at you as you walk into a classroom as a student! Been there and it’s hilarious when you repeatedly are confused with a student’s mother lost on campus, or a new professor). Get crazy-sexy with your spouse and swing from the chandelier in a house gloriously empty of minors!

Start planning and having those conversations, now, for when your child will leave home. Of course, never before have so many young adult (and not so young adult) kids remained, or returned, home. Decide now and talk openly about whether you’re willing to have your adult child eating Cheerios and watching Netflix on the discarded futon in your basement. Setting expectations and any limits is important to finding a negotiation between you and a returning adult child so that you don’t feel taken advantage of (news flash – the 20 year-old will NOT die if they have to get a job, do laundry, construct a budget, get dressed, get off the sofa, respect your house policies and function like an adult while demanding the freedoms of adulthood). If they return to your home, does that create resentment on your part, or extra work? It so, put down clear guidelines and limits. A Cadillac commercial years ago celebrated the empty-nester couple, by declaring that they had “raised their kids, and now it was time to raise some hell.” Mom and dad, you’ve done your job. Now it’s time to have some fun. If I can help you with the transition to a child-free home, or find your purpose, or help you create that spark between you and your spouse that seemed to go the way of the dodo bird somewhere between Little League practices and spelling test studying and childhood colds, give me a shout. I’m at 501.238.2557, and my website is I also can create a community group for empty-nesters at your business, church, school, home setting. Let’s banish the echoes and change this from an ending to an all-new, fun beginning.

Your life isn’t over – it’s just changing.

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