After years of prepping, months of anxiety, and days of packing, we finally drove the 500 miles needed to drop our firstborn off at college. The car ride was long, and surprisingly quiet. Maybe it was my Fannie Flagg audiobook. (Really good!) Or maybe it was the alarm we all felt that one -- in our neat little family of five -- was about to flee the flock.
What they don't tell you when you're struggling with nighttime feedings and terrible 2-year-old meltdowns is just how quickly it all goes. Or, maybe they do tell you, but you're too exhausted to hear. Either way, now that the boy who I once believed would never sleep through the night is officially a college freshman (and a marathon sleeper, I might add), there are a few things I wish I'd done differently:
5) I wish I was less serious. It's not that I regret taking parenting seriously; it's just that I wish I was a less serious parent. I worried. A lot. About everything. From handwriting skills to bedtime routines, I probably should have eased up.
4) I wish I had partied more. Birthday-party planning freaked me out. Literally. What's the theme? Who's got a peanut allergy? How many gifts in a gift bag? Inevitably, I'd shut down, scrap the party, and have a "special" family-only celebration.
3) I wish I had learned to delegate. Because I always thought it was faster to do everything myself, I now have an 18-year-old son who's mystified by the mechanics of laundry, cooking, and cleaning. And I became a bit of a martyr along the way.
2) I wish I had listened more. Family life can be One-Flew-Over-The-Cuckoo's-Nest crazy (a reference which clearly leaves me playing Nurse Ratched), with phones ringing, kids crying, bathrooms flooding, and dinners burning. Despite the chaos, I wish I had developed the ability to rise above the din, and focus in on little reports about the day.
1) I wish I had lived in the now. With long days, busy schedules, and constant deadlines, my mind often raced to the "next." The next meal, the next soccer game, the next whatever on the to-do list. I think I missed a lot of lovely now's, preoccupied by the next's.
Given the time -- and I have exponentially more time, now that I'm one child down -- I could probably come up with a much longer list of things I wish I did differently. But I won't. Moms do what they do to stay ahead of the roar. And as I held my nearly-grown son's hand in mine, before driving the 500 miles home without him, I shared a prayer that I'd said for him the night before. I prayed that he'd gain strength and wisdom from this next phase of his life. And that he'd always know how much he is loved. With surprised tears in his eyes, he said he'll always know that. I'd done a great job showing him. Ah, one wish granted.
In the same way that volunteering at your child's school makes you part of a community and helps you make friends with fellow parents, volunteering at your local library, homeless shelter, or with a civic group will immerse you in a new community that includes neighbors and empty nesters.
Did you know that Laura Ingalls Wilder didn't start writing books until her children were grown and with kids of their own? Take advantage of your empty nest and get involved in something that you have wanted to do and previously did not have enough time to do. Take a class, play a sport, or find a hobby.
If you've only ever done poorly paid part-time jobs while the children were at home (or if raising kids for 18 years was enough full time work in itself!), now you've got the chance to have a fresh start. Or you may have an ambition to run your own business -- the 'encore career' movement is rife with fresh faced entrepreneurs over 50. Now is the time to discover what passions live within you and pursue them to the bank!
Now that you're not responsible for getting a kid to school at 8 a.m. five days a week, explore the idea of exploring. Rejoice in the freedom you haven't had in years and see the world. Feel like seeing the pyramids? Versailles? Living in Costa Rica for a year week? Step to it amigo!
If an empty nest means anything, it's privacy. Rejoice in your long-deserved break from acting like a parent and act like an adult. Whether you're married or single, take the opportunity to reignite the sputtering spark in your relationship or get out there and carve out for yourself a love life worth living. It's true what they say, sex IS better after 50.