What to Expect When You’re Expecting an Empty Nest

For twenty-five years, momming was my main gig, my purpose. Awake between five and six am, depending on whether we had theater, choir, detention, whatever. I had the kids up, coffee made, pets fed, dishwasher started, clothes in the wash and everyone off to school before starting my “real” work day. If it sounds like I’m tooting my own horn here, I am.

Hats off to all the moms who’ve made it this far. Between homework and hormones, benchmark tests and fundraisers, first jobs and first dates, picture days, recitals and plays, you know the drill. I pushed past my feelings of inadequacy. I did it for my kids. Hard but worth it. Give yourself a pat on the back. It may be the only thanks you get for a while.

Despite my mom super powers, I still succumbed to empty nest syndrome. When my kids grew up to leave home, I thought I’d get a sense of triumphant accomplishment. Success. Yes, even relief. After all, you raised them right. They’re supposed to move onward and upward. Your little birds are destined to fly. My friend Kres questions if wings are the best thing we can give our kids. She says our “children are not birds.” I think she wants to keep hers at home forever though. And can you blame her? Goodbyes are hard.

I’ve been through this five times. You’d think it would get easier, but, for me, it didn’t. The last to go was the hardest. Reasons vary, but the kids will leave, even the ones who love you. College. You cross your fingers hoping, please, let it be college. Not all go to college though. Don’t worry. Besides, there are no discounts for multiple loan applications.

A couple of ours joined the navy. Sometimes it takes a while to get their bearings first. They may choose to acquaint themselves with an absent bio-parent (lovely), stumble through a bad relationship with a drug addict (been there, done that), welcome an unplanned pregnancy (surprise, you’re a grandma!), or any other cringe-worthy path you can imagine. Think of these choices as the learning curve.

Don’t go on vacation yet though. Sometimes, the kids leave and come back and leave again. We took off one weekend, only to hear from our next-door neighbor that a horse was tearing up our back yard. A horse! Yes, while we were away, our son let himself back in and his girlfriend rode her horse over. Another time we arrived home to find traces of a cleaned up party and a $900 heating bill.

Brace yourself for a roller coaster of emotions. Maybe consider changing your locks. We followed the popular advice to dismantle the nest and redecorate the kid’s rooms. This did little to deter them from coming back. If they need a nudge, try asking for rent or become a nudist.

Once on their own, the kids will need help, financial help mostly. They’re new at this, so try to understand, but don’t let them take advantage. A little kindness goes a long way. We “helped” with cars, legal fees, bills, tuition, bail, moving costs, driving to Colorado, North Dakota, South Carolina… You name it. So yeah, maybe they took advantage a little. If they’re in a bind, help. Soon enough, you’ll realize though, not everything is an emergency.

You’ll say it’s a loan. Maybe you’ll think it’s a loan too, but if we’re being honest, you’ll never see that money again. If you expect help from the absent bio-parents, just don’t. Chances are, the kids will turn to you. You’ve been the constant source of everything in their lives for as long as they can remember.

By now you may be thinking, this whole watching the kids go off on their own, making mistakes while there’s nothing you can do about it scenario feels pretty awful but wait. It’s not all doom and gloom. Once you get past the nights of crying yourself to sleep, you’ll start to see the brighter side. Oh yes, it gets better. Mixed in there with some bipolar, mood-swinging cuckoo days -because let’s face it, empty-nesting is conveniently timed around menopause (which incidentally I also thought would be easy) – alas, there IS an upside.

For starters, you no longer have to worry about missing silverware or glasses growing mold in the dark abandoned recesses of a bedroom closet. Remember that one time your son threw away your favorite pot because he didn’t want to scrub it? Well, now you get to keep all your expensive pots and pans and silverware and dishes safely tucked away in the cupboards of your kitchen. What a concept!

No more mystery odors wafting from bedrooms either. No piled up towels in the bathroom. No cleaning up missed shots at the toilet bowl.

No need to worry about the bus slipping into a ditch or getting hijacked or the kids smashing your hand me down car into a pole on the way home from school. You can replace those fears with empty-nest worries. They’re still your kids and they’re out there somewhere vulnerable to something.

Better yet, if you try hard enough, you can begin to relax in this odd new space of peace and quiet. It’s so quiet. Why is it so quiet? No cause for alarm. The kids are gone. But it’s annoying. Vacant. A reminder of what’s missing. Okay wait, don’t cry. They’ll be back for the holidays.

And hey, you get to sleep late. Go ahead. Relax a little. In fact, the temptation to go into full hibernation mode until this thing blows over is a strong one. Resist. There’s a wonderful world out there waiting for you.

For instance, perhaps you have a husband. Remember him? You can throw out those mom jeans now and get freaky, or as the kids say, “netflix and chill”. They won’t be around to gross out at the lovey-doviness of it all.

Speaking of tv, you can binge watch the boob tube and no kids will mock you for calling it the boob tube. Comedies are the best. If you don’t laugh, you might cry. So laugh a lot, laugh often and at inappropriate times.

Just think. A box of pop tarts will last more than 30 minutes when you bring it home from the store. Or if you’re on that new detox diet where you eat nothing but ice and want to choke anyone approaching your three feet of personal space, take comfort in the fact you can stick with a diet now because the pop tarts are no longer in the house. Yay.

They say that cashews are more effective than anti-depressants, so have at it. Buy a couple hundred bucks worth in bulk and hold onto them just in case, like me, you start to lose it a little.

You can pretend everything’s okay, but any parent with a soul will know the pain you’re going through. I never dreamed I’d be so sad. I didn’t expect to feel as if no one needed me anymore. If you’re experiencing a depressing loss of identity, redefine yourself. Many of my friends had more kids to prolong the onset of empty-nest syndrome. I’m not willing to go that far. In fact, I’m feeling much better already. No really, I’m good.

Do something you’ve always wanted to do. What would you be doing if you could do anything? Do that thing now because you can. You can travel. You can start a new hobby, like drinking. Just kidding. Don’t do that… too much. Maybe a little. Okay, drink but you know, responsibly or whatever.

Anyway, what I’m getting at is the world doesn’t have to end. Contrary to what you might think, it’s not even the end of parenting. Instead, maybe it’s time to party. Call up old friends. Have adult conversations. Break out the good stuff, the stuff you’ve been hiding from the kids all these years.

We could have created the ultimate retirement cave with all the extra space we had. Instead, we took our daughter’s advice and downsized from a six bedroom ranch to a three bedroom with a pool. Our new home feels more like a vacation resort. We were fortunate enough to trick my mom into moving in with us too. You might say the little chickies flew the coop and the mama hen came home to roost. She makes a great margarita. Hey, if you have to suffer, might as well do it at the pool with music and a cocktail. Drag your loved ones along. Misery loves company.

During the crying times and there will be a few, look for things that bring you joy and do them. Read a book. Go shopping. Eat out. Yes you’ll think of the kids all the time and how you used to do things together. Forgetting the kids is not the goal. The point is to enjoy the journey and live in the present.

You can still lurk and creep on their social media. No one will be the wiser unless you “like” everything they post which is fine too. Whatever brings you calm.

If you don’t hear from them as often as you hoped, don’t take it personal. They’ll come around… sooner or later. I always feel so needy and obtrusive if I text or pm too much. I want to empower my kids. I know they’re busy. So, I wait to hear from them, but I keep myself going while I wait.

Your kids have their own lives now. You might feel left out. It hurts a lot when they choose other stuff over spending time with you but it happens. In fact, two of my “grown” kids actually celebrated my birthday on a beach in another state with my ex once. Talk about weird, but hey, they’re learning to spread their wings and who doesn’t love the beach?

The new dynamics of this separation will forever change your relationship with your child. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing, just different. You both will grow together and apart, and that’s okay. It is what it is. You created a happy little life, full of memories, some lovely and pleasant times. And now you’re leaving your comfort zone to take on a whole new challenge.

Change is hard. Letting go is a process. Accept, dare I say, embrace the transition. Pray a lot. Breathe. It’s your time. Maybe you’re feeling a little pitiful like I was. Fixing your attitude is the right thing to do. It’s the best thing you can do for yourself and others. When you’d rather guilt-trip the kids for being so selfishly independent, choose instead to love on them, even if you don’t feel like it.

It’s been about three years now, but I’m starting to come around. Leap or get left behind. Life is too short to get stuck in the sticks.

This post first appeared in Huffington Post 08/29/2016

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