“So that’s it,” I thought as I got ready to pull out of the dorm parking lot. I was hot, sweaty and exhausted from moving my son into his first dorm. I looked around the car to make sure we got everything. It was then that I noticed the car was quiet, too quiet. There were hundreds of college kids, parents, and cars as far as the eye could see. And yet I never felt more alone.
I called my husband, who is stationed overseas. He tried to be helpful; he said, “He’s a great kid!” I knew that. “We did a great job raising him.” I knew that, too. “He’s going to be just fine, better than fine.” Yeah, I knew that, too. I missed him already. His laugh, his friends, his hugs and even his dirty clothes. Okay, that last one was a lie.
They call it Empty Nest Syndrome, also known as the post-parental period. It’s not a real illness per se, but it is common enough to have some very real symptoms. Empty Nesters experience loss; with that comes worry and sadness. Remember the first day you dropped your child off at daycare or school? Remember how your arms ached to hold them? There is that, too. You may feel a little lost as your roles and routines have changed. It’s a little confusing trying to remember who you were and what you did before your time and attention became someone else’s.
According to Dr. Vijai Sharma, Ph.D., there are 3 phases:
- Mourning the loss
- Grief Work and Recovery
- Renewal and Integration
I have to agree with him. It gets better. There are some positive things that come with this phase of life. For instance, you can make some extra money by renting their room on Air BnB…just kidding. Don’t do that. You will have more time on your hands. At first, you may not want it. That’s okay. Eventually, you may begin to like it. Here are a few ways to prepare yourself for this transition and to begin to enjoy it:
- Create systems; along with room and board make sure you teach your child how to budget. Teach them how to set limits to protect themselves; Teach them “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”; protect their study time.
- Set up a time and day that they will call you to touch base. It’s hard, I know, but if you call them, you will invariably interrupt something, and you’ll only feel bad because they are distracted.
- Try to allow them the space they need to find themselves, but be available if they need you.
- While you’re making sure that you are okay with this transition, make sure younger siblings are okay, too. Enjoy them—remember, your oldest had your undivided attention first, now it’s their turn.
- Enjoy your spouse! Empty Nesters often find this another honeymoon phase.
- Take classes; get a part time job; explore new hobbies. You are still young and vibrant. Like to DIY? Or yoga? Or hiking? Now’s the time!
- Accept that this is new to everyone. Their experience will not be like yours, it will be all their own.
- Find friends who are also empty nesters, a support group, or professional support. If your depression or anxiety is too much, or lasts more than a few weeks, reach out. You’re not alone.
Your child is embarking on a new adventure, but this can also be an amazing time for empty nesters, too. Stay positive; you’ll still have much to look forward to. You will find renewed passions and new interests. Then, when they come home, and they will, you both will have stories to tell.