I’ve never liked the term empty nest. It seems to imply someone who is sad and lonely and unable to move on. In reality having our nest begin to empty can be a time of increased freedom and better relationships with our emerging adult children.
Living on a farm, I do have a real affinity for a nest. We, just like birds, spend an incredible amount of energy creating a space to birth and raise our babies and like birds we occasionally have to remind one when it’s time to go with a nudge. Unlike birds, we do not have to abandon our nest after the babies have flown. We can redesign and feather it in sometimes surprising ways to hold and nurture us and the returning young adults on holidays and family time. Our nest can become an incubator for thinking deeply about how to use our gifts and talents to be useful in the world. It can be a spot of hospitality and gathering place of old and new friends. A place to pick up hobbies and interests we may not have had time for when we were busy with full time parenting.
The emptying of our nest is one of grief mixed with promise. For some the grieving begins as an anticipatory process. The senior year of high school is poignant with every new “last”, the last ball game, prom, debate, etc. We control what we can by over preparing for their departure in the same way we over prepared for their arrival. For others, there is great joy at the anticipation of being able to have more time available to pursue things long put on hold or to reconnect with a life partner who may have played second fiddle to the parenting role. Sometimes it’s even a cycle between loss and joyful anticipation. There is no right or wrong way to traverse this important developmental milestone.
When my daughter left for college I felt a gaping hole in my chest for the entire first semester. I was still busy with a son at home, a career and keeping up with household duties but the void of her presence was always with me. The house felt really empty, she has a way of filling a space and having that gone was palpable. She was the type of kid who appreciated frequent texts and I was very appreciative of that. I longed for a group of women to envelope me in their loving concern while I processed the beginning of losing the most important job I had ever had. Being a mother surpassed all other roles I have had to date and having it in a state of flux and not knowing how it would all land in the transition was stressful and anxiety provoking.
Two years after my daughter’s departure to university, it was my son’s turn. Almost immediately after getting him set up in his dorm our home was flooded by a hurricane. His launch to more independent living became secondary to the survival skills necessary for securing temporary housing and managing a flooded home. Sometimes, even in the midst of the chaotic recovery of the flood, I would momentarily be overcome with missing him and be racked with grief. There was no time to process it, think it through or even reach out to check on him. He is less likely to text me regularly and the distance between us that first semester felt like a vast divide and was another complexity to an already overwhelmingly stressful time.
Three common dynamics most people share during the anticipation of the emptying nest are re-evaluating our identity, ourselves in a marriage or parenting partnership or if single, how that could change without full-time parenting marriage and our vocational track. Some of the questions you might find yourself asking are:
- Who will I be when mothering becomes secondary instead of primary in my life?
- How will my mothering look different with an adult instead of a child?
- How will I transition to thinking about my needs instead of filtering all my thoughts through my child’s needs?
- How will this change my relationship with my partner?
- How will my partner change with less full time parenting responsibilities?
- If I don’t have a partner, will I feel more freedom to explore that as a possibility?
- How will I fill the space from full time mothering with meaningful and engaging purpose?
- Am I ready to begin exploring a new career or reinventing ourselves in preparation for semi-retirement or retirement?
- How can I use my experience and vitality in a new way?
All three of these dynamics are still at play in my life even as my children are ending college and moving into professional careers. One of my biggest surprises is how dynamic my relationship is with both of my children. I no longer feel responsible for keeping the relationship going by myself, I know they will hold up their end to keeping us an involved and close family. I’m also humbled by how much I’ve grown with their feedback, confrontation and modern ideas and beliefs. I believe a large part of my generative development has been due to my willingness to be influenced by my children.
Be compassionate and gentle with yourself and your emerging adults as you are both in tender transitions. Let them know you are learning how to parent an adult at the same time they are learning to be an adult. Seek solace with other women who are in your same developmental stage or who have already passed through this stage. Know in your heart of hearts that it’s ok to grieve, to process and to enjoy the new space in your life. You may find that in the process you are reinventing yourself.