I was a tearful mess the entire summer before my son, Phillip, went off to college. I couldn't help it. I would come down to the kitchen in the morning and see Phillip sitting in the family room watching ESPN, and I would sigh to myself, "Oh, he won't be sitting on this couch in the mornings anymore."
The ordinary, menial activities took on a weight of loss and unless you weren't in my head you would think I had PMS for three long months. The waterworks would start at the oddest times. I would be picking up a container of guacamole at the market, and there I would start again. It must have been a comical site for those who were watching me. It seems funny to me now too, but at the time, I was telling myself how I wouldn't be stocking up the house with Phillip's favorite foods anymore. Yes, guacamole, sourdough bread and rice cakes with seaweed flakes would trigger a flood of tears.
It isn't that my entire identity was wrapped up in being a mother. After all, I work outside of the house and keep a busy schedule. But I also noticed that no matter how engaged you are outside of the home, family is the most important. I was really grieving the loss of family rituals and feeling connected to Phillip in the way I was before.
But nothing could have prepared me for my reaction when I stood in Phillip's dorm, waving good-bye to him. He had just finished shoving his empty suitcase underneath his bed and scanned the room to see where he could put up the posters he had brought from home. I went over, stood on my tip-toes and gave him a big hug. I noticed how tall he was. He had become a young man and yet again I became tearful. But when I turned to leave the room, I found myself smiling. Somehow something had lifted in me, and I turned to my husband and said, "We did it! We did our job."
I am sure my husband was just relieved that he didn't have to extricate me from Phillip's dorm. You know, you have heard of women doing crazy things in the peak of an adrenaline rush: lifting a 2,000 pound car to save a child, running in record time to stop an accident from happening, and as for me... handcuffing myself to Phillips bedpost in his dorm. Thankfully, that did not happen.
You see, while helping Phillip set up his dorm room, my focus had suddenly shifted. I could feel my son's excitement -- after all he was going to the school of his dreams. And isn't this what he is supposed to do now? Of course, in the following months I had moments where I missed him a lot, but with time, those feelings too started falling into place.
I know that I am not the alone in this experience. With statistics pointing to 77.6 million baby boomers living in this country, it seems that many of us are in the same boat, and can relate. Perhaps no one warned us, or prepared us for this season that would come, but now more than ever people are open and wanting to discuss such things.
Empty nesters may feel themselves wondering, "Am I normal to be feeling this way?", but often the deeper question that they are asking is that, "Will I be okay?"
Feeling prepared can help alleviate the transition. After much research and speaking with experts, I've compiled a list of a few pointers that can help us along the path.
4 TIPS TO REGAINING SELF IN THE EMPTY NEST
1) Devote time for "discovery sessions".
As we parent, we sacrifice some of our own needs in order to be available for the needs of our growing families. We need to take time to unearth those important parts of ourselves that need further development and nurturing.
Start thinking about the things that you would like to add to your life -- and do more of it -- whether it's taking a class, volunteering in your community, or starting a new venture.
In doing research for my upcoming book, Pioneers of the Possible: Celebrating Visionary Women of the World, I came across many women who made their big imprint later in life. Take for example Marina Silva: she was illiterate until age 16 and started out earning money by cleaning homes. Just last year she ran for president of Brazil. This story shows us that that it is never too late to learn something new, pursue a life-long dream, or a passion kept at bay.
2) Reconnect and rekindle other important relationships in your life that are important to you.
You now have the time. Studies have shown that empty-nesters reported greater satisfaction with their partners than did mothers with children at home. Flexibility in your schedule means a greater opportunity to plan interesting experiences with your partner or friends. Since many moms report a loss of the old network of friendships with other moms, this is a great opportunity to reconnect around other activities.
3) Natalie Caine, who leads empty-nest support services, gave another helpful hint. She asks her clients to write a letter about what they love and won't miss... and read it out loud. This should help you gain some perspective and lighten the mood! I would further add that reminding ourselves that raising independent young adults who are curious to explore the world and take on more responsibility -- was a big part of our job description. So, as hard as this transition may be, putting it in perspective allows us to accept and slowly appreciate this change.
4) "Once a parent, always as parent."
Remember that parenting is an ever-changing role. We must adapt in order to be relevant in our children's lives and their ever-changing needs as young adults. As Natalie Caine pointed out, parents' role shifts from managing their kids' lives when they were younger to a relationship that feels more like a mentorship. Conversations shift from discussing the details of their daily schedules to becoming a listening ear or voice of wisdom when they are in need.
The empty nest is an invitation to focus back on ourselves. It is a stage in our lives where we begin to build new inner resources. We may grieve for the role and life we used to have, yet at the same time can be assured that there is much to look forward to with the new freedom to come. The big lesson for us all is to learn to appreciate life in the moment -- not trapped by our emotions, or longing for the past to fulfill us -- but remembering that as life unfolds before us, it grants us pleasures at every stage.