The great migration to college begins this week. Bed, Bath and Beyond has been sacked and the booty loaded in the car, so heavily weighted down that the back bumper practically scrapes the ground. Move-in day dawns, inevitably hot and humid, with all the "stuff" needing to be carried up at least three flights of stairs. That's the easy part.
The hard part is heading home, with tears and tissues, and composing yourself just in time to open the front door to the dreaded empty nest. Tears and tissues, again! Those feelings of loss can linger for weeks and sometimes months. The upbeat advice from books and articles to take up the tango, cavort with your husband in every room in the house, and to find a new hobby too often doesn't fill the emptiness.
The empty nest syndrome is not limited to one "type" of mother. Stay-at home moms as well as working moms experience "the same feelings of profound sense of loss that might make them vulnerable to depression, alcoholism, identity crisis and marital conflicts," finds the Mayo Clinic.
Even when there are other children still at home, ENS can strike, and not only parents. My daughter recently shared that when my oldest son when off to college, she cried for days while setting the dinner table for four rather than five. The pattern of family life, shaped over 18 or so years, is irrevocably changed when the first leaves and is then altered with each subsequent departure. Still, for many moms, the hardest parting is when the youngest leaves and the nest becomes museum-like in both neatness and noise levels. We face the harsh reality that our child-rearing days are over, and that means we are getting older. There's no more figurative "Baby on Board." More like "aging Baby Boomer." We confront that deep loss as both individuals and as parents. "I've been demoted to part-time work. Soon I will attain emerita status. This stinks," author Anna Quindlen wrote in "The Empty Nest: 31 Parents Tell the Truth About Relationships, Love, and Freedom After the Kids Fly the Coop,"
Misery loves company, and as evidenced by the dozen or so titles on Amazon, there's plenty others sharing this experience from "The Empty Nest: When Children Leave Home," to "Chicken Soup for the Soul: Empty Nesters: 101 Stories about Surviving and Thriving When the Kids Leave Home," to "Empty Nest: Discovering New Purpose, Passion & Your Next Great Adventure," and even "10 Great Dates for Empty Nesters."
Many offer similar advice which can be summed up as:
- Refocus your life; it's your time to find or rediscover your talents and interests and start experimenting with them.
- Reconnect with your husband whether it's with quiet conversations at dinner (most likely to be about the 'kids") or enjoying uninterrupted time together doing whatever strikes your fancy.
- Talk to others who are experiencing the same emotions, and if need be, seek a support group or professional advice.
Some of these books were written pre-recession, with the notion that once the kids leave, they stay away. Just when you get used to the quiet -- and experts estimate that the adjustment can take from 18 months to two years -- the kids are boomeranging back. About 36 percent of young adults ages 18 to 31 were living in their parents' home in 2012, the highest number in more than 40 years, found a new Pew Research Center study.
Still, whether the children return or not, we need to acknowledge that empty nest feelings of grief and loss are real and are yet another 'trauma of everyday life" as psychiatrist and author Mark Epstein calls them. In a recent New York Times article, he writes: "While we are accustomed to thinking of trauma as the inevitable result of a major cataclysm, daily life is filled with endless little traumas. Things break. People hurt our feelings. Ticks carry Lyme disease. Pets die. Friends get sick and even die... The traumatic underpinnings of life are not specific to any generation. The first day of school and the first day in an assisted-living facility are remarkably similar. Separation and loss touch everyone."
So remember, while you are dealing with the empty nest your adult child is also grappling with his or her own life changes whether it's the somewhat bizarre freshman roommate or the slap-in-the-face reality of senior year. You are still needed, not in the same way as at home, but in a new, more adult relationship. You don't leave them at the dorm never to connect again.
My own nest emptied completely two years ago this fall, and then filled again the following spring when my daughter, like so many thousands college grads, moved home while looking for her first job. Now she's gone again, living hundreds of miles away. A friend asked if I miss her terribly. Of course I do, and it helps to know she's at the right place for this time in her life. What helps even more is that I've gotten used to the comings and goings of three adult children, as have most of my contemporaries with the 20- and 30-something children. The emptying and occasionally filling again of the nest becomes the new normal. Routines adjust; work and play expand and contract as needed. Yes, it takes effort to create new traditions, to coordinate vacations so everyone overlaps at least for a few days, to plan family events six months in advance as well as turning on a dime for them. But what also helps is that we baby boomer parents have something our own parents never even imagined: technology. Texting, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, phone calls, online sharing photos, articles, ideas, recipes, keep us closely connected to our children even when they have long left the family home. This is not your parents' empty nest!
Mellor cautions against actually purchasing a condo nearby after move-in day...but heading back to class yourself isn't a bad idea. Mellor's own mother completed her degree as a fifty-something, but you could start a little smaller than that -- say, listening to TED talks from home.
You're free and the sky's the limit! Above all, Mellor advises, do not fester in "sadness, loneliness and abandonment."
Especially if you've never gone before.
"And that man, sitting across from you at the breakfast table...he looks...familiar," Mellor writes. "You know him, you just don't know how." Use your empty nest time to remember what your relationship with your spouse or partner was like before the kids came along.
Mellor even provides a handy recipe for your next party. (That's cocktail party, which means no clowns and balloon animals. Remember those?)
"Our bodies, apparently, will not exercise themselves while we sleep," Mellor observes. Since you must exercise at a certain point, "you might as well find some fun ways to do it." Like dancing!
A favorite strategy of Anna Dello Russo, editor of Vogue Japan, for getting in touch with "the spirit of your outfit," empty nesters can benefit from this tip as well. The empty-nest years are a time to start paying attention to your appearance again, says Mellor, especially if you've gotten into bad habits (mom jeans, anyone?).
"Learn to be a sloth, and without guilt," Mellon writes. "Wallow in languid inactivity." You've earned it.
After all those years of coaching your kids through music lessons, you've probably picked up a few things, observes Mellor -- why not indulge yourself with a few lessons?
Redecorate that extra room! Make it a yoga studio, or a new TV room. Explore what your space can be like when you're decorating with your needs -- and not Dick or Jane's -- in mind.
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