The night before my firstborn left for his freshman year of college he strolled into the kitchen with his mp3 player blasting -- one earbud was tucked into his left ear and the other was wedged in his bellybutton. I gave him the requisite maternal smile and eye roll, but felt a pang -- his goofy boy humor would no longer be part of my everyday life. Sure, he'd be back -- but not for good. The next week I commiserated over lunch with my friend Kumi, whose son had also just left. Both of us had made child-rearing the central focus of our lives and now, between bites of Cobb salad, we had to acknowledge the wrenching reality: If you do it well enough, parenthood is a tragic occupation. In the end, you lose. Everyday your child grows away from you until finally he or she is ready to leave you behind.
"I don't want to sit around moping," I said.
"We have to do something," said Kumi.
And so, the Empty Nest Fest was born. We emailed this simple invitation far and wide: "You're invited to brunch in honor of all us parents with newly empty -- or emptying -- nests. Let's celebrate (and commiserate) together!"
A month later, my home was jam-packed with parents going through the same bittersweet transition. They brought an abundance of bagels, salads and beer. By the end I felt replenished, refreshed and overstuffed with pasta. Plus, I'd made new friends. Judging from the "thank you" emails we received, our guests felt equally uplifted.
Two years later, Kumi and I are facing perhaps a bigger challenge: we've just dropped off our youngest children at freshman dorms hundreds of miles away. So very soon, we'll be sending out a new batch of Empty Nest Fest invites. As I look forward to Empty Nest Fest 2.0, here's my advice on how to hold one of these gatherings yourself. I hope you'll leave comments with your own tips:
Wait a bit. Don't host a gathering the first week after your child leaves. Better to hold off for a month or even two. The party will arrive just as life is getting back to routine and the emptiness hits home.
Join forces. If possible, hold the party with a friend whose social circle doesn't completely overlap yours. Meeting new people and expanding your social life is a great antidote to feeling that your world has gotten smaller, a common experience after kids leave.
Go pot luck. Unless whipping up complicated culinary spectaculars is your form of therapy, ask all guests to bring something to eat or drink. Doing so will allow you to focus on the party, not the oven. And, by contributing, your guests will feel more invested in the event, which creates a warmer and more communal atmosphere.
Expand the guest list. This is a "party with a purpose" so it's a great excuse to invite friendly acquaintances you wish you saw more often -- like your former bleacher-mates from your sons' Little League days, or the fellow class parent you keep running into at the supermarket at 6 pm, each of you promising to get together "soon."
Replay it. I'm out of children, but that's no reason I can't throw one of these parties every year. Right?
Nan Silver is a journalist and New York Times bestselling author specializing in psychology, parenting and health. With Dr. John Gottman she is co-author of the books What Makes Love Last? and The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work. Connect with her at nansilver.net and on twitter @parentingxtwo.