August marks the start of a painful time in the lives of some mid-lifers: The Empty Nest Syndrome. It's when our kids pack up and leave our homes for college, often moving great distances from us. We bravely wave goodbye after we deposit them in dorm rooms and stifle our sobs when we return home to see their empty bedrooms. For me, it's years away.
But apparently I'm suffering from Early Stage Empty Nest Syndrome. I came down with it this summer when my 15-year-old daughter Sophie got her learner's permit to drive and I kind of veered off the good parenting road.
In what was admittedly not my finest parenting moment, I did my best to dissuade her from doing what the state of California says she is legally old enough to do: Learn to drive. I told her in no uncertain terms that cars were 3,000-pound weapons that, if given even just a nanosecond of inattention, would commit certain carnage and mayhem. I drew up a responsibility contract, forgetting that I not only already have the world's most responsible daughter but that I have always scoffed at parents who think making their kids sign these things was going to do the trick.
Eventually, I was forced to accept that Sophie was indeed going to learn to drive this summer, and that I could not be the one who taught her. It isn't that I'm not the more patient parent (because I am). It's that I'm a nervous wreck and this was way more than I could handle.
So we signed her up for 12 lessons with a driving school that specializes in teen driving instruction and her Dad takes her tooling around greater Los Angeles every day for an hour or so. You can mark this hour because I spend it pacing behind my desk with my cell phone in hand, waiting to get the call from the hospital.
Every day when I get home from the office, my husband tells me she is doing just fine and I counter by doing a walk-around the car looking for new dents and scratches. He tells me she never forgets to use her turn signal and I extract a promise that he won't take her to any intersection without a left turn lane to aid her. I commiserate with another Mom who describes how she hid in the bushes during her daughter's first behind-the-wheel lesson; she kept her fist in her mouth to repress the involuntary screams from escaping. This woman is like my new best friend.
But in reality, I know that for me this is more than just worrying about Sophie's safety as she does U-turns and freeway lane merges. It's that I know that a driver's license is her passport to adulthood and I'm not ready to let her travel away from me just yet. That's why I call it Early Stage Empty Nest Syndrome.
Whether we want to admit it or not, our kids' inability to get places on their own is one of the big things that keep us in their lives. We have to drive them to their friends' homes, which allows us to know who those friends are. We have to take them to the mall, so we know how many hours they are spending there. They can't go anywhere without us knowing about it.
Maybe it's because I live in Los Angeles where we spend an inordinate amount of time in the car, but I've come to love the hours each week that I'm alone in the car with my kids driving them places. We talk without the distractions of their friends, my job, phones ringing or TVs on in the background. We really talk, without interruptions. I cherish this time.
And it's all about to change when Sophie gets her driver's license and doesn't need me in the car with her anymore.
My daughter's learning to drive is the actual onset of her independence. I predict that sending her off to college, by comparison, will feel much less frightening. For now, I'm just hoping that she relies on both the car's GPS and what we've taught her about making smart choices for her direction.
Earlier on HuffPost50:
Your House Is Clean
Gone is the detritus of your children's lives scattered here and there, carelessly flung about and forgotten. Your bathroom towels will stay hung neatly on their bars, the dishes are placed in the dishwasher instead of left to sit next to the sink. Beds remain made, floors remain clean, clothes are neatly put away. Mystery spills vanish, and you never wake up to a mess. Who knew it could be like this?
You Discover You Still Like Your Partner...Or Make A Big Change
Some couples decide that it's time to separate and move on, others remember why it was they fell in love in the first place -- or find new reasons and ways to connect to each other. Without your kids, you become each other's only companion when you're at home. <em>It can't be overstated how much of a distraction our kids are while they are growing up.</em> This is probably the most jolting part of the empty nest -- when you look at each other and think, "Oh wow, it's just us now." For better or worse, it will happen.
You Can Sleep Through The Night
No longer are you waiting for the sound of a key in the door, or the porch light to be turned off upon your children's safe return from another night out. No longer are you part of the day-to-day ups and downs of your children's lives ... no matter how often they may text/call/email/facebook message/tweet you. Their mental and physical well-being, though still hugely important to you, are their responsibilities now, and you no longer have the minutiae of their daily lives to think about like you did when they lived at home.
You Food Bill Drops Significantly
If your kids are in college, or even if they're not, you may still be paying for them to eat. But it's nice to go to the grocery store and come home with the things you want, and not have to buy all the things they want, things that you really don't want in your house.
You Have A Lot More Free Time
Initially, this may be disturbing or difficult for you to deal with. You may want to do things you've missed -- museums, movies, theater, travel or you may not want to do much of anything at all. Whatever your thing is, there's now time to do it ... a lot of time.
You Can Spend Time With People You Like
No longer do you have to socialize with other parents because of your children's connections. No more booster club barbecues or committee meetings, making small talk with people you most likely never would have crossed paths with if it weren't for the fact that your children were on the same team/in the same class/part of the same group of friends.
You Begin To Experience Your Children As Young Adults
Your children leave home and, for better or worse, they have to grow up, no matter how much help you may be giving them financially OR emotionally. There are just too many daily things to manage, too many random people to deal with, too many bumps and blips that they have to encounter on their own that leads to them, inevitably and sometimes painfully, growing up. It can be liberating when kids take over, driving or planning or explaining -- giving up some authority is in many ways a big relief.
Your Kids Come To Visit...
There's nothing quite as wonderful as seeing your kids after weeks or months apart, especially when they first go away to college. Their faces are familiar and beautiful, their smiles just for you, their laundry ready to be washed...it's such a thrill to have them home for holidays, or summers, or a weekend visit. Within minutes of their return, it's as though they never left. You love having them home for a while, but then...
...Then They Go Back Where They Came From
Your Future Is Yours
Remember before kids, when you would dream and plan for the rest of your life? Remember when it was wide open, and you had no idea what would happen next? Well, you can do that again, now that you're an empty-nester. No longer do you have to worry about childcare, or kids missing school, or whether they'll like the place you pick to go on vacation -- your time, your future, and your life is yours to create. Always wanted to travel? Now you can. Go back to school? Now's the time. Write a book? Get cracking. You have your life to live, just as they have theirs. Go do it!