The transition to an empty nest can feel gut-wrenching and/or disorienting at first -- but you can find your way over time.
It's the little things that tend to do you in: the sight of a too-empty refrigerator; the fact that you're no longer tripping over a small mountain of running shoes each time you attempt to enter or exit the front door; and the silence that greets you if you happen to be brave enough to step foot in your child's now-empty room.
The transition to an empty nest (or an emptier nest, as the case may be) can be a rough one, especially during the early days. Sure, you've known this day was coming from the moment you became a parent, but it can catch you off guard nonetheless. ("How did the past 18 years manage to fly by so quickly?" you ask yourself as you hug your child goodbye and exit his dorm room.)
It doesn't seem all that long ago that you were trying to wrap your head around the fact that you were about to become a parent -- and now this chapter in your life is coming to a close. Or so it seems....
But is it? Are you obsolete? Have you actually outlived your usefulness as a parent? Or could it be that you're about to enter an exciting new stage together? (Or at least once you're finally able to stop crying?!!!) Based on what I've learned over the past ten years while watching my own four kids exit the nest, I would have to say it's definitely the latter. This isn't the end. It's more like a beginning. There are great times ahead. But you have to allow yourself to feel what ever it is you're feeling before you can find your way to that happier place.
And here's something else you need to know: there’s no right or wrong way to feel as you weather this milestone transition in your life as a parent. Your feelings may surprise you. You may feel more devastated or more relieved than you had ever imagined yourself feeling. And that's okay!
It's also pretty common to experience a mix of emotions. According to developmental psychologist Jeffrey Arnott, 84 percent of new empty nesters report missing their kids; 90 percent say they’re happy their kids are more independent; and 60 percent report that they’re looking forward to having more time to spend with a partner or spouse.
Looking for some strategies to help you manage that cocktail of emotions? Here are a few tips, based on what I've experienced firsthand and what I've learned from other parents. (Note: If you prefer to listen to the audio version of these tips, you can tune into my recent interview with CBC Radio's Metro Morning.)
Give yourself a chance to feel all the feelings
Resist the temptation to fast-forward through these emotions -- and know that the intensity of these emotions will start to ease over time.
Talk to other parents who’ve weathered this transition and come out the other side
Look for people who will help to reassure you that what you’re experiencing isn’t actually an ending, but more like a beginning: the start of an exciting new chapter in your life and a brand new relationship with your child.
Offer that same kind of support to other parents
Reach out to other empty nesters you know who might be having an exceptionally tough time. And be sure to make a point of looking out for the dads as well as the moms. After all, it's not as if moms have a monopoly on experiencing that aching feeling of loneliness when they stumble into a child’s now-empty bedroom. Dads feel it, too. And we need to ensure that they know that it's okay to talk about it as well.
Set a new goal for yourself
Remember all those years when you longed for a bit of time to yourself? Now you've got that time. So set a goal for yourself. Sign up for a course, acquire a new hobby, train for your first 5K, or plan a weekend getaway to a place you’ve always wanted to go – perhaps with someone you haven’t had the chance to spend time with in a while. In other words, embrace the freedom that comes from having a bit more time to yourself and for all the other important relationships in your life. Not only will this help you feel better (or, at a minimum, a little less awful): you'll also be modelling healthy resilience for your kids. You'll be demonstrating your ability to embrace new opportunities as opposed to, say, moping around the house -- or turning your kids' empty bedrooms into shrines!
Stay connected in a way that works for your child and for you
Look for opportunities to maintain your connection to your child -- and don’t feel that you need to apologize for doing so. At a time when parents are frequently (and often unfairly) lambasted for being “helicopter parents,” you might be hesitant to provide your child with the behind-the-scenes emotional support and connection that actually encourages first-year college and university students to thrive.
Of course, what you say (and how you say it) matters a lot. You want to be kind, supportive, and encouraging. You want to express full confidence in your child’s ability to cope with whatever curveballs happen to come her way. And, finally, you want to remind her that she can reach out to you for support at any time, because family is forever and your love is unconditional.
All that said, it’s important to recognize that some students will welcome more day-to-day contact with their parents than others. Some will benefit from a steady stream of encouraging messages from back home -- while others may want to pull away a little at first as they dive into the carnival-like excitement of campus life. Let your child take the lead in determining the frequency and mode of communication (text messages versus phone calls or face-to-face visits), but don’t be afraid to reach out if he or she drops the communication ball. Odds are your child will welcome a semi-regular stream of “thinking of you” messages from back home. (According to a December 2015 study conducted by the BMO Wealth Institute, over half of Canadian parents reported having contact with their young adults every day or almost every day. And young adults welcome that contact, with just 23% complaining that their parents were overly involved in their lives.)
Ultimately, that contact is good for them—and it’s good for you, too. Research shows that life satisfaction increases for parents during the empty nest stage for those parents are in frequent contact with their young adult child. So don't feel pressured to pull away as you enter this new phase in your relationship with your child. Your child still needs you as much as ever. They just happen to need you differently, that's all.
Want to get the scoop on Ann's forthcoming book -- Happy Parents, Happy Kids -- when it hits the bookstore shelves early next year? You can sign up for Ann's book announcement newsletter here.