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If you spend any time on social media, you know that each fall brings an outpouring of emotional posts from parents dropping kids at college and from those newly entering the empty nest stage of parenting.
With no hesitation, I admit that the first college drop-off with our daughter was rough for me as I struggled to reconcile my excitement with my heartache. Reflecting on it now, I realize that most of my emotional turmoil was because she was moving across the country, to a city where we knew nobody, and that was scary. We had no doubts she'd succeed in college and would be fine once she acclimated and made friends. But it still felt like something was just wrong for a while.
It was a completely different vibe the second time around, when my husband and I left our son just two hours away at a school many of his friends would be attending, too. We turned the corner after saying goodbye to him and grinned at each other. I hummed George Michael’s “Freedom” for most of the ride home.
Becoming empty nesters is a monumental milestone for parents. So much so that the transition now is listed as a health phenomenon, according to the Mayo Clinic:
“Empty nest syndrome isn't a clinical diagnosis. Instead, empty nest syndrome is a phenomenon in which parents experience feelings of sadness and loss when the last child leaves home… Although you might actively encourage your children to become independent, the experience of letting go can be painful.”
For some people really feeling the loss, there may even be increased vulnerability to depression, alcoholism, identity crisis and marital conflict.
When my children left for college, I grappled with various emotions, of varying degrees — sadness, loss, exhilaration, and perhaps even a little guilt as we happily drove away from our son’s dorm.
That’s not to say there weren’t moments that I missed him deeply and shed a few tears when I thought about him not being with us for certain occasions, but the overall mood of our new empty nest was one of peaceful contentment.
I remember asking my mom at that time if the transition to an empty nest was hard for her when I (her baby) left for college. She said she was sad for a little while, but adjusted quickly, as I think most parents did back in the day.
Why does this transition seem so much more fraught now? I saw a mom on a site recently saying she “had a breakdown just seeing the first college brochure arrive at their house.” We laugh at joke-y pictures of parents being dragged in despair out of dorm rooms but they seem to signal an underlying message that we can’t deal with our kids moving on and leaving us.
I think there are a few reasons our generation of parents struggle more than our own parents did.
First, the world just seems more uncertain and scary. Parents sending kids to college today worry about them surviving and thriving through a pandemic, divisive politics, climate change (and associated extreme weather events), and increasing mental health challenges.
In addition, the competitive nature of parenting has changed how much emotional and financial currency a certain demographic of parent spends raising children. Kids start playing on organized sports teams before they even get to kindergarten. Some parents get on waiting lists for the “right” private elementary and secondary schools years before their children can even apply. The race to have a robust college application packet factors into kids’ activities when they're barely into middle school, and many of us spend thousands of dollars on things like club sports teams, community service trips abroad, and standardized test tutors. These are things most parents in the '60s, '70s and '80s never considered doing, and would have scoffed at spending money and time on.
We're also much more immersed in the day-to-day lives of our children. Technology made it simple during their high school years to view their homework assignments and test grades, what they and their friends were posting on social media, and even where they were geographically at any given moment.
When suddenly they disappear from our immediate sphere of influence and observation, it’s a shock to the system.
This has all left me pondering. Have we gotten too close to our kids? Have we invested a bit too much of ourselves into raising them to be successful, to the detriment of our ability to exist happily without them?
I for one am so thankful to have a close relationship with my young adult children. My husband and I talk with them about things we never talked to our parents about. I think most parents of my generation enjoy more honest and open communication with our children than we had with our own parents. This could be part of the reason many of us struggle with adjusting to an empty nest.
We simply miss interacting with them. Talking, laughing, hanging out.
I think we can re-frame the whole emotional act of sending our children out into the world, whether they're off to college, trade school, the military or a job. When they move forward to the next life stage, it's rock-solid proof that we've succeeded in our roles as parent.
Think back to those first few exhausting years. Pull out the baby book if you have one. Remember when your child first slept through the night? You rejoiced! Remember when they took those first wobbly steps? You cheered! Think about the thrill you felt when they read their first sentence, or wrote their entire name, or willingly shared their toy with another child at the playground.
You felt pride and triumph on every one of those momentous occasions. Your baby was advancing, progressing and evolving to become a more complete human being. One with the physical, mental and emotional skills to make their way in the world.
Getting to send out your only or your last child to experience life on their own is the ultimate goal of creating and parenting another human. It is fitting to celebrate that enormous success. And with that achieved goal should come feelings of profound peace.
Of course, there will still be times that your child causes you worry and aggravation, no matter where they are. That’s human nature and will occur as long as you have a relationship with them. But depending on their circumstances, they’ll be back home for visits, possibly entire summers, or for extended stays.
I've found that I experience many periods of deep peace within my empty nest. After that last child leaves, and your children are taking on more and more responsibility for their own lives, you can release more and more of the mental labor of parenting. The emotional connection continues to strengthen, but with an added benefit of watching your kids transform into mature and conscientious adults. This is the way it should be.
So if or when empty nest grief overwhelms you, move through your sorrow, but have faith it will diminish quickly.
Then summon and lean into the peace and the joy of an empty nest. Celebrate reaching the significant milestone of parenting that it is, and be grateful for the opportunity to see your incredible human return on investment.
Congratulations on an important job well done.