Being called an "empty nester" defines you exclusively by what you're NOT: that societally valued active parent. It makes me feel like I should just step out onto the proverbial ice-floe with the other Eskimo geriatrics and let nature take me out of everyone else's misery...!!)
Parents feel whipsawed between the frenzy of college sweepstakes, Bed Bath Beyond mall-trawling and dorm room set-up, and arriving home to the new, unnaturally tidy quiet. And launching the last child to the universe is a seismic shift in parents' whole world order; our identities, our priorities, our very senses of self-worth undergo tectonic upheaval. How can anyone answer "how ya doin' being an "empty nester?!" in an authentic way that honors the loss-drenched truth? The phrase trivializes such a profoundly disorienting life phase. It's like asking a newly bereaved widow how she's enjoying single-hood.
Our adjustment to being "empty nesters" is made even more difficult by the fact that our culture is allergic to frank disclosure about painful life transitions. In fact, parenting guidelines go radio-silent after those toxic teen years, as though our parenting mission terminates upon releasing our High School Senior to the universe. It's rather the way fairy tales end with the prince and princess marrying "and they lived happily ever after." We know all too well that marriage doesn't resolve but rather ushers in new life challenges, as indeed, does becoming an "empty nester." Consider the despair of helplessly witnessing our children free-fall and crater instead of achieving lift-off as they leave the nest. But that's another blog.
It reminds me of how childbirth preparation was limited to "puff puff pant" to mitigate our natural childbirth "discomfort" (a euphemism for indescribable agony). I, for one, received precious little forewarning about the social isolation, numbing fatigue and self-doubt I'd be besieged by, upon arriving home with my first newborn. And no one ever warned me that I would have days when I'd best don a hefty bag with holes cut out for my head and arms, so I could hose myself down between projectile pukings.
We get plenty of stock reassurances about the upsides of this "empty nest" phase that do indeed, hold true; Yes, the only thing worse than our last child leaving is her NOT leaving at all! Sure, life is simpler, more self-centric, less stressful, marriage-enriching, friendship-enhancing, job-enabling. But scattered exchanges with fellow "empty nesters" take on a forced cheery superficiality that alienates us from each other and from ourselves. ("Hey! It's all good!" "It is what it is...") We cling to the safe but shallow surface just when depth of compassion, both with ourselves and with each other, is most sorely needed.
Well, here's my truth. Despite having helped others mourn their last child's departure, the intensity of my own anguish in leaving my last child at college was breath-taking. It was a visceral pain that resonated back in time, through and through. It felt like childbirth again, not just psychologically, but physically. Every fiber of my being was clenching back my spasming distress, which I was fighting to hide, to ease my son's good-bye struggle. I held him in one last, long hug, my cheek to his chest as he lay on his newly made dorm bed. As I heard his beating heart, I was, in a flash, transported back to that first miraculous moment when, through my obstetrician's stethoscope, I heard his tiny prenatal heartbeat, 19 years ago. This tender auditory reminiscence ambushed me, knocking the wind out of me.
Brave-faced, my husband and I nonetheless held it together and took our leave from our son. But the moment we were out of the dorm and around the corner, we collapsed into each other's arms, bereft, sobbing. The pain was unspeakable. Spending the night in a hotel, just blocks from his dorm, to set out at dawn for the long drive home, without one last hug from our last child, was sheer agony. So close, yet so, so, so,... gone. Returning home confronted us with the end, not merely of a chapter, but of an entire book, possibly the most cherished one of our lives. I still have to keep his bedroom door closed to avoid being jarred by the unnatural order and stillness of his absence. It has been like an amputation, replete with the phantom reflexes I can no longer perform; favorite food purchases to NOT toss in the cart, meals NOT to cook, inside jokes NOT to crack with each other, goodnight-hugs not to receive. And, sure, late night curfews not to monitor, worries about teen recklessness NOT to lie awake fretting about, chores NOT to nag about. These are impulses to action engrained in my neurons from thousands of firings over half of my life as a mother; phantom-reflexes firing for naught. Six weeks later, the sharp pain has dulled to an aching, unsettling disorientation. It takes very little reflection on the ways I miss mothering my three children, before my sense of loss cramps my throat and stings my eyes. Talk about your Post-Partum Depression! (Post-Parenting Depression?!)
And yet, as so often happens, there's bountiful yield to opening rather than bypassing my own pain. As I searched the dimensions of my mourning, as well as my surroundings for comfort, I realized that when we need the support of our fellow "empty nesters" the most, is precisely when they're least available. Why? -- because along with our last children, we too graduated from the institution that knit us together through these parenting years of struggle; the back to school nights; the planning committees; the fundraisers; the bleachers, auditoriums, and sidelines; the end of year parties; all of these events bound us to each other day to day to fellow soldiers in the trenches of parenthood battles. And now we look around to find we have all dispersed.
So that "V-8 moment" revelation (absurdly obvious in retrospect), prompted me to reach out and share more honest answers to that jarring question: "how is it being an empty nester." And in turn, folks opened up more earnestly back to me. One mom's eyes brimmed with tears as she confessed she exhausts herself with frantic busyness to avoid the crying that overtakes her when she becomes still. One dad revealed he was hit by a double whammy loss when fulfilling his deceased wife's greatest dream of seeing their only daughter off to college.
I also started a monthly group for moms who'd launched their last child. Its mission is for us to offer mutual support and seed new growth in this freshly tilled soil of upheaval. So often, I've found, where women neglect their own cultivation, they champion others', exponentially increasing the power of support groups. Interestingly, in our first meeting, all the attendees voiced concern about their husbands' silent suffering in sullen grumpiness, and their need for help in identifying and expressing their sense of loss. But that, too, is another blog.
Other ways to form new webs of social support to replace the ones lost? Host a "pack a care package for your Freshman" cocktail party with fellow parents of the class of 2013. Start a monthly or seasonal meet-up at a local restaurant or bar for fellow parents to attend and re-connect. Reach out to your old posse of sideline parents and forge a new excuse to gather; game nights, progressive dinner parties, book groups, volunteer teams, weekend trips, tri-athalon relay teams.
Just don't permit yourself to sink into isolation. When we shut ourselves off to each other, we promote estrangement, from others, and worse, from ourselves. Follow wise and renowned speaker and researcher Brene Brown's urgings When we honor and share our harbored truths of vulnerability, we enable others, in turn, to open up authentically to us. In this way we forge connections of wholehearted compassion. In the end, that's what heals and grows us all.