As the financial aid forms are being filed, and senior projects are nearing completion, many moms and dads are looking toward the fall when their son or daughter - where did the years go? - go off to college. The way in which a parent views this new chapter for their child and for themselves varies from person to person. But, one thing is for sure, as sure as the sun rises and sets, this transition will change life forever.
Wikipedia's definition for empty nest is:
Empty nest syndrome is a general feeling of loneliness that parents or guardians may feel when one or more of their children leave home; it is more common in women. The marriage of a child can lead to similar feelings, with the role and influence of the parents often becoming less important compared to the new spouse.
A strong maternal or paternal bond between the parent and child can make the condition worse. The role of the parent while the child is still living with them is more hands-on and immediate than is possible when they have moved out, particularly if the distance means that visits are difficult.
There is simply no right or wrong way to view the empty nest, only different. However, there are healthy attitudes and actions that will enable those with children leaving the nest for the first time, regardless of their parenting style, to live a full and hopeful life even though the bedroom down the hall is empty.
n Don't be a helicopter mom or dad. Helicopter moms (or dads) circle over head and nose dive at the first instance of distress or meltdown from their young chick who has just flown the coop. Know that emotions run high as a young person leaves home for the first time. They may call home in a panic over a roommate issue, scheduling problem or pure homesickness. If you talk them through the issue at hand, instead of swooping down to solve their problem, your college freshman will flex his/her muscle of independence as they solve their own problem. Their self-esteem will be bolstered as they realize, "hey, I've got this. I can do it."
I've been there. The first time my daughter called home in tears, my helicopter-smother-mother instinct kicked in. Then, I remembered: this is where she needs to spread her wings, solve her own problems and in essence, grow up. As a result, she made her own way. That is not to say that a parent shouldn't guide or give advice to a young adult, but the helicopter has got to go back to the hanger, that engine turned off, and the key locked in a safety deposit box somewhere in order to allow the college freshman time to maneuver their own way.
n Re-create your role. Anyone who raises a child for 18 years comes to see themselves as that child's parent. Their own identity is often lost somewhere between the mounds of diapers, the massive amount of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, report cards, pizza, soccer games, and then driving lessons, proms and graduation. You may or may not still have children in the home, but if this was your only or last child, then re-creating your role is essential for your well-being.
You may no longer be doing the mom taxi, but that doesn't mean you cannot make a difference in the life of a child. There are scores of children needing a mentor. If you find yourself grieving the absence of nurturing, then find a program such as big brother/big sister, and nurture away. Offer help to a young mom who is just trying to keep her head above water and is struggling to survive. Volunteer at an after school program. Teach a child or even an adult to read in a literacy program. There are scores of ways to invest your life in the life of another person. Volunteer with a youth group in church or in your community.
n Enjoy your hobbies and interests. You may have had to put your interests and hobbies on the back burner for so long while raising children, you barely remember what they were. Dust off the shelf of "I'll do that when I get time" and do it now. It may mean going back to school, taking a dance class, putting your life in pictures into a scrapbook, or getting the pottery wheel back out from the basement. Whatever you always wanted to do, do it now. If you are married, you and your husband may have never had the time or money to go on that second honeymoon (or maybe even a first). Now would be an excellent time to rekindle the romance and remember this was how you began. If you are single, what a great opportunity to have some time for yourself and enjoy the company of good friends through cooking dinners together, getting that long desired degree, going out to eat or taking a trip.
n Travel. Personally, this writer, the Lord willing would love to take missions trips and work in orphanages. I've told my kids many times that rocking babies in orphanages is my thought on ideal retirement. Whether I will have the health to do that or not, I do not know. But, enjoying grandchildren and other children sounds next to heaven to me.
Most people do not realize, but empty nest feelings begin when your child enters high school. The proverbial light at the end of the parental tunnel is now evident and some grief during this stage is common. I've heard many languish the fact that their little one begins preschool. Maybe empty nest begin then. But the fact remains, empty nest is no laughing matter and can be very serious for those who have invested their entire identity into their child. Many cling tenaciously to the child which causes the child to feel guilty for wanting to spread their wings. Enmeshment in a family is an unhealthy interdependence where no one person can function alone. That, of course, is not healthy nor desirable. So, resist the desire to "hang on" and rather encourage independence for your child and for yourself. "Reach for the stars" is a phrase I love to use as my kids tell me their dreams or hopes for the futures. Of course, a good "back-up plan" is always encouraged as the trip to the stars can be long and tedious, but nevertheless, shooting for them keeps hope alive.
Instead of resisting the empty nest, we should instead embrace it as the avenue in which we may all grow, expand our horizons, and enjoy our "new normal."
I recently heard this story from one woman who was experiencing empty nest: "When my last child left home, it hit me hard. I had been a parent for most of my adult life and didn't know what to do with myself. I missed having the sound of young voices filling the air and the activity of kids going in and out. The first year, I consented to host an exchange student from Europe. Her presence helped me make the transition. But I found I still had a void to fill. I became more satisfied when I turned to seeking my unfulfilled purpose and asked, 'What does God want for my life now?' When I asked, he showed me. For the first time in my life I was able to take a mission trip that I had always desired to take. It was the most wonderful, blessed experience in my life aside from having my family. As much as it filled my need to be a blessing to others, I was even more blessed by the people I met. They had so little and it showed me how much I had. There was no more time for me to feel low and lonely."
God provides us with an awesome sense of worth when we trust him. He says in Isaiah 46:4 "I will be your God throughout your lifetime - until your hair is white with age. I made you and I will care for you. I will carry you along and save you."
The lord is here to help us enjoy are our years, have peace and find the perfect balance in this next stage of life.
(Kimberly Short-Wolfe, MA, has a master's degree in human relations counseling from Liberty University, is a home school mom, and the grief counselor/chaplain for Mountain Hospice. firstname.lastname@example.org or call: 304-823-3925, ext. 136.)