When your kids are small the idea of dropping them off at college seems practically inconceivable. First, it often feels like you were the one who was just college-aged yourself, and second, can we just get them out of diapers/sleeping in their own beds/enrolled in kindergarten…before we start talking about college for heaven’s sake? But as any parent knows, this roller coaster ride moves fast and picks up speed as it goes. Even though we know that there's an exit ramp in place, it’s still a bit of a gut punch when you say goodbye to your child and drive away.
Last year when I dropped my son off at school I initially thought I was fine, then quietly cried on and off all the way home. It wasn’t just that my baby was leaving home or that he would be leaving an empty chair at the kitchen table or that I wouldn’t be able to hear his big laugh or trip over his big shoes on a daily basis. It was that this signified the end of a chapter in my life and I didn’t really know how the next chapter would unfold.
It’s important to remember that every parent’s experience is different. A single parent’s experience might differ from that of a two-parent home, a stay-at-home parent could differ from a working parent. Some parents breeze through the whole thing and others spend a lot of time counting the days until their kids get home for the holidays only to go through the mourning cycle all over again.
However you parent, this is a notable transition. Perhaps only akin to bringing home your first child. Here are a few things to consider as you adapt to empty nesting.
Let yourself feel all the feels:
If you’re feeling sad then honor that. Be kind to yourself as you grieve the end of this part in your parenting journey. It’s hard not to see them every day, to know what they are doing, who they’re hanging out with, if they are doing their homework, staying hydrated or eating their vegetables. When the sadness comes up, take a moment and let it wash over you. Don’t judge yourself if you’re grieving (or if you’re not!), but if you are, I encourage you to find someone other than your child to share your grief with. Your partner, a close friend, a therapist or a coach are all good choices. This transition may be difficult for your child as well and there’s no need to add to their stress.
Notice your mindset and reframe the situation:
Instead of dwelling on the fact that this is an ending of sorts, try looking at all the ways in which it’s a new beginning. This is not a crisis - it’s an opportunity. Create some new weekend routines and some personal goals. Decide to read a book a month, get back to running, learn how to salsa dance or take Spanish lessons. Maybe now’s the time to start volunteering, gardening or bird watching. There’s a plethora of cool shit to do out there and no better time than now to re-engage with yourself and the wider world. Change your routine and put new things in place. Start going to that 4:30 PM yoga class, start cooking foods that your kids never appreciated but that you love, go on some weekend hikes (being in nature always helps), you get the picture. Make yourself a cup of tea and spend twenty-ish minutes making a list of all the things you’ve always wanted to do so you can start checking them off.
Don’t forget, you’re still parenting:
You’ve always tried to be a role model for your kids so keep it up. We want our kids to see that we have engaging lives; it takes the pressure off of them and it’s empowering to see that people can thrive at any age. Kids want to know that they’re missed, but that that their parents are happy and living their lives to the fullest.
Worry is part of the whole parenting gig, but keep in mind that even if your kid ends up being terribly homesick or has a less than ideal experience it will still be year of tremendous growth and self knowledge. Kids need to feel encouraged that they are capable and can figure things out on their own versus hearing you tell them all the things they should be doing to make it a perfect experience. My advice is to try listening more than usual and avoid giving a ton of unsolicited advice unless you think that your child is truly in a dangerous situation.Create some new family traditions like a weekly check-in Skype or FaceTime call on Sunday nights, sending seasonal care packages, writing them actual letters on actual paper, planning a family trip.
This September I am dropping my daughter off at college so my nest will be officially empty - at least for now. These days it’s not unusual for kids to move back home for a while after college while they save money or figure out their next move. I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it but for now, I’m looking forward to growth, reconnection and a big pile of possibilities to choose from.