My friend Paul recently called me weeping.
Broken leg? No. Death in the family? Nuh-uh. Cheating spouse? Nope. What my teary friend was suffering from was a sudden outbreak of empty nest syndrome.
"I just got back from dropping my kid off at college in the Midwest," he sniffed. "She's a freshman. Everything was okay when we said goodbye. But when the plane took off for home, forget about it. At wheels-up I began to quietly cry, and I didn't stop until somewhere over Pennsylvania. I'm still a mess."
Paul isn't alone. Every year, millions of parents across the country face what once seemed inconceivable to them: their youngest or only child flying the coop, leaving them with a big echo-y house and a bigger, echo-ier future.
"It's just astonishing to me," confirmed my New York friend Janice, whose only child set off for San Diego State University in late August. "I put 18 years of my life into helping him become a whole person! I thought, 'Okay, now I'll have some time for me.' But then he left -- and, dammit, I miss him! They didn't warn me about this part."
Empty nest syndrome -- sadness, ennui, the feeling of purposelessness -- is nothing new, of course; it's been around since the first caveman sent his caveson to Bedrock U. But it's a still a very real feeling, and it can sweep your legs out from under you. Ironically, researchers note that empty nest syndrome is actually on a downswing, primarily as a result of the economy. Census data has shown that, because of the withering job market, as many as 20 million 18- to 34-year-olds were still living at home with their parents. Other research has suggested that "25 is the new 22" -- meaning that many parents continue to help their kids out through their young adulthood because the don't expect them to be financially independent.
But that doesn't make the pain any less real. So experts have come up with a variety of recommendations for lonely-hearted parents such as taking time to process your feelings, making a list of personal goals, rekindling your romance - all perfectly valid ideas.
Or...there's something I always do to pull myself out of a funk, and that is look for laughter: a funny friend, a comedy club or even a favorite old movie.
So for my friends Paul and Janice -- and for all you newly christened empty-nesters out there -- take a moment to read what two of my favorite comedians, Robin Fox and Carole Montgomery, have to say about suddenly confronting that empty room down the hall. You may still want to hold onto that box of Kleenex, but this time you'll be drying tears of laughter.
Congratulations to all of you. It's the job you set out to do -- and you've done it well!
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