Many newbie empty nesters might be wondering whether their son or daughter is happy at college. Is he making new friends? Is she getting along with her new room-mate? How are his classes? Is she studying enough? Partying too much? Maybe you’re sad because your son doesn’t call unless he’s in trouble or needs money. Or worse, maybe your child is calling home too often, lonely, anxious or unhappy. Going away to college is a BIG transition as well as a milestone for the whole family. It’s natural to grieve, but how can parents move on?
There are many ways to adjust to an empty nest if you focus on the freedom and opportunities a child’s departure provides. If you’re a single parent, maybe it’s time to start dating. A stay-at-home parent can go back to an old career or start a new one. Married parents can enjoy greater intimacy as a couple (or separate if they’ve stayed together just for the sake of the kids). Weekends no longer revolve around children’s activities. Parents are free to go to museums, plays, movies or a walk in the park on the spur of the moment. And instead of policing homework, TV time, and video games during the week nights, Mom and Dad can go out for a romantic evening or meet friends on a Wednesday—now that it’s no longer a “school night.”Although my twins Max and Sarah left for college five years ago (and have since graduated), I remember what it felt like to be a newbie empty nester as if it happened five minutes ago. With both twins leaving for their respective colleges only a day apart, I experienced instant empty nest. The first night Henry and I sat down to dinner with only half a family, our dining area felt like a mausoleum.
“Deadly quiet, isn’t it?” Henry remarked sadly.
“Yes,” I sighed, “but somehow we’ll have to get used to it.”“I guess that means we’ll have to talk to each other.” He smiled.
And I smiled back.
Actually, we made the transition pretty quickly. That first year as empty nesters my husband and I went to more rock concerts than any other time in our marriage. We saw the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Paul McCartney and Rod Stewart. I started to feel more like a teenage groupie than a middle-aged mom. We went out for dinner sometimes during the week and went shopping for ourselves on the weekends.Henry missed the whirlwind weekends with the kids more than I did as a stay-at-home Mom who saw them 24/7. He loved coaching Max’s Little League baseball and football games on Saturdays. And he cherished his father/daughter brunches with Sarah when he taught her French and then took her for swimming lessons. At the same time, he worried about me losing my identity and falling apart. What would a stay-at-home mother of twins do in my newly empty nest?
Plenty, as it turns out. I went back to writing—my first love. I decided to write a memoir about raising my unusual twins—a daughter on the autistic spectrum and a son with mild ADHD who needed open-heart surgery at age three. During my kids’ college years, I wrote (and rewrote) Picture Perfect Family in Monday night workshops with Jacob Miller, attended writers’ conferences and started my blog, The Never-Empty Nest, in 2012. (Check out my interview about Empty Nesters today on Fox 5 News with Ernie Anastos at 6 PM or on myfoxny.com). Apparently there are lots of fellow empty-nesters writing blogs and memoirs, according to “The Empty-Nest Book Hatchery” in The New York Times 10/12/14 Sunday “Styles Section.” Better jump on board before the trend turns into a cliché.
In some ways, having kids in college gives parents the best of both worlds. You still see them during vacations without having the day-to-day responsibilities. Plus with today’s technology, it’s easy to stay in touch via text, email and Skype. Most baby boomer parents will remember that during their own college days, communication with Mom and Dad meant using a telephone—maybe even one of those obsolete phone BOOTHS that our kids don’t even remember. If you’re lucky—as Henry and I have been—your kids will invite you up to visit after Freshman Parents’ Weekend. Max joined Vassar’s rugby team, so Henry, Sparky (our now-deceased Norwich terrier) and I were all able to watch our son’s home games. It was a lot of fun (except when Max was carried off the field with a twisted ankle). Even more fun (for me) was watching Max perform in his sketch comedy group, laughing AND feeling proud when the rest of the audience howled at his jokes.We didn’t see Sarah as much because Landmark College in Putney, VT was 4 ½ hours away from New York City as compared with the much easier 2 hour drive to Vassar. Still, we went to see her perform in a play and listened to her sing in her choral group. In between, she sent us long emails and talked to us on the phone more often than Max did. Little by little, we all got used to new rhythms in the days and months that followed, as all four of us moved forward with our lives.
And before you know it, your children are graduating! Some of them will have jobs and move out of the nest for good. Others (including mine) boomerang back into their childhood rooms while they look for jobs and spend more and more time sleeping at boyfriend’s and girlfriend’s apartments. College is only the beginning of an empty nest, a four year transition. But don’t worry. By the time they graduate from college, separation may feel more comfortable for EVERYONE than a return to full-time togetherness. My best advice to empty nest newbies: Enjoy your children’s college years—their freedom and yours—as you watch them spread their wings.