I was a tearful mess the entire summer before my son Phillip went off to college. I couldn’t help it. I would come down to the kitchen in the morning and see Phillip sitting in the family room watching ESPN, and I would sigh to myself, “Oh, he won’t be sitting on this couch in the mornings anymore.”
The ordinary, menial activities took on a weight of loss, and unless you weren’t in my head, you would think I had PMS for three long months. The waterworks would start at the oddest times. I would be picking up a container of guacamole at the market, and there I would start again. It must have been a comical site for those watching me. It seems funny to me now, too, but at the time, I was telling myself how I wouldn’t be stocking up the house with Phillip’s favorite foods anymore. Yes, guacamole, sourdough bread, and rice cakes with seaweed flakes would trigger a flood of tears.
It isn’t that my entire identity was wrapped up in being a mother. After all, I work outside of the house and keep a busy schedule. But I also noticed that, no matter how engaged you are outside of the home, family is the most important.
I was really grieving the loss of family rituals and feeling connected to Phillip in the way I was before.
But nothing could have prepared me for my reaction when I stood in Phillip’s dorm, waving good-bye to him. He had just finished shoving his empty suitcase underneath his bed and scanned the room to see where he could put up the posters he had brought from home. I went over, stood on my tiptoes, and gave him a big hug. I noticed how tall he was. He had become a young man, and, yet again, I became tearful. But when I turned to leave the room, I found myself smiling. Somehow, something had lifted in me, and I turned to my husband and said, “We did it! We did our job.”
I am sure my husband was just relieved that he didn’t have to extricate me from Phillip’s dorm. You know, you have heard of women doing crazy things in the peak of an adrenaline rush: lifting a 2,000 pound car to save a child, running in record time to stop an accident from happening, and, as for me, handcuffing myself to Phillips bedpost in his dorm. Thankfully, that did not happen.
You see, while helping Phillip set up his dorm room, my focus had suddenly shifted. I could feel my son’s excitement—after all, he was going to the school of his dreams. And isn’t this what he is supposed to do? Of course, in the following months, I had moments where I missed him a lot, but with time, those feelings too started falling into place.
I know that I am not the alone in this experience. With statistics pointing to 77.6 million baby boomers living in this country, it seems that many of us are in the same boat and can relate. Perhaps no one warned us or prepared us for this season that would come, but now more than ever, people are open and want to discuss such things.
Empty nesters may feel themselves wondering, “Am I normal to be feeling this way?” but often the deeper question they are asking is, “Will I be okay?”
Feeling prepared can help alleviate the transition. After much research and speaking with experts, I’ve compiled a list of a few pointers that can help us along the path.
Four Tips to Regaining Self in the Empty Nest
1. DEVOTE TIME FOR ”DISCOVERY SESSIONS”
As we parent, we sacrifice some of our own needs in order to be available for the needs of our growing families. We need to take time to unearth those important parts of ourselves that need further development and nurturing.
Start thinking about the things that you would like to add to your life and do more of them—whether it’s taking a class, volunteering in your community, or starting a new venture.
In doing research for my book, Pioneers of the Possible: Celebrating Visionary Women of the World, I came across many women who made their big imprint later in life.
Take, for example, Marina Silva. She was illiterate until age sixteen and started out earning money by cleaning homes. Just last year, she ran for president of Brazil. This story shows us that it is never too late to learn something new or to pursue a life-long dream or passion kept at bay.
2. RECONNECT AND REKINDLE OTHER IMPORTANT RELATIONSHIPS IN YOUR LIFE
You now have the time. Studies have shown that empty nesters reported greater satisfaction with their partners than did mothers with children at home. Flexibility in your schedule means a greater opportunity to plan interesting experiences with your partner or friends. Since many moms report a loss of the old network of friendships with other moms, this is a great opportunity to reconnect around other activities.
3. WRITE A LETTER ABOUT WHAT YOU LOVE AND WON’T MISS, AND READ IT OUT LOUD
This is a tip from Natalie Caine, who leads empty-nest support services. This should help you gain some perspective and lighten the mood. I would further add that reminding ourselves that raising independent young adults who are curious to explore the world and take on more responsibility was a big part of our job description. So, as hard as this transition may be, putting it in perspective allows us to accept and slowly appreciate this change.
4. “ONCE A PARENT, ALWAYS A PARENT”
Remember that parenting is an ever-changing role. We must adapt in order to be relevant in our children’s lives and their ever-changing needs as young adults. As Natalie Caine pointed out, parents’ role shifts from managing their kids’ lives when they were younger to a relationship that feels more like a mentorship. Conversations shift from discussing the details of their daily schedules to becoming a listening ear or voice of wisdom when they are in need.
It is a stage in our lives when we begin to build new inner resources. We may grieve for the role and life we used to have yet, at the same time, can be assured that there is much to look forward to with the new freedom to come.
The big lesson for us all is to learn to appreciate life in the moment—not trapped by our emotions or longing for the past to fulfill us—but remembering that, as life unfolds before us, it grants us pleasures at every stage.
Angella Nazarian is a bestselling author and noted speaker. Both of her books Life as a Visitor and the newly released Pioneers of the Possible: Celebrating Visionary Women of the World have become bestsellers for the publisher and have garnered glowing reviews from Arianna Huffington, Tina Brown, Martha Stewart, and Diane von Furstenberg. To learn more about Angella, visit her website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
Image courtesy of Janet Tarbox
*Image courtesy of butterfingers laura.February 10, 2014