The emptying nest
This fall, thousands of 18 year olds will be leaving for college. It’s a huge transition for young people—adjusting to living away from home. But it’s a major life change for parents too. We have spent 18 years caring for, nurturing, and watching over our children. And, while our role as a parent has constantly changed as they have grown, they have always been under our roof.
I remember when both of my children started kindergarten—another big life event in our parental life. On that day, tears came to my eyes as I turned them over to the educational system.
I brought both of my daughters to college. It was also very emotional for me. I realized that we were both starting a new phase of our lives. My role as a parent was like a setting sun, while their young adulthood was just rising in the east. I was both sad and happy.
This is a big transition for family life. It can be hard for younger children. While they may covet their older sister’s larger bedroom (or look forward to greater use of the family car), their departing college freshman sibling wants to hold on to their position at home. I remember when my big brothers went off to college. I was bereft. They were such a big part of my daily life. Of course, I still wanted their bedroom!
How involved should parents be in their college freshman’s life? That is a complex question. I know that I worried a lot less about my kids when they were at college then when they were high school seniors. There is something about being out of sight that gives parents a breather. On the other hand, I frequently wondered what they were up to! Fortunately today, cell phones, Facebook, and email make it easier to stay in touch with college students.
Staying closer in touch enables parents and kids to check in with each other, without feeling too much pressure. After all, if your kid goes to Western in Bellingham, an hour or so ride is close enough to come home on occasional weekends, but far enough to stay out of the parental eye—probably a good deal for both parents and kids.
When our daughters went to college, I realized pretty quickly that they were only away for 30 weeks a year! (Don’t try to figure out how much tuition you are paying per week of school—that’s a quick way of having a heart attack!) So, the good news (and sometimes bad news) is that they are home quite a bit—especially in the beginning.
Another big adjustment for parents, when the nest starts emptying out, is the change in their relationship. For 18 years, so much of marital life revolves around kids--conversations, activities, economic decisions, and yes, conflict center around children. Mostly, it’s very gratifying. But it does eat up vast amounts of adult energy, time, and attention.
Now, parents have more time together. Sometimes spouses discover that they have less in common than they had before they had kids. They find themselves talking less about their children—but what if they don’t have much else to talk about? There is more time and space (it’s amazing how teenagers tromping around at night can inhibit parents’ sexual life…) for romance. But it may feel awkward and strange to have so much time together. What should we do? It can be an adjustment.
It takes time to adjust. It took me about 6 months to get used to our emptying and then finally empty nest. But I am a slow adjuster! Be patient, it can take some time to get used to your new life.
Let go.The “letting go” process of parental life starts from birth—the first letting go big event! Recognize that this is a time for you to make another big giant step in this progression. Don’t call or text them every five minutes! Let them have some space. They know your phone number. Send them care packages--they will appreciate home baked cookies more than daily calls.
Develop new interests. When our last daughter went off to college, Diane and I decided to take Salsa lessons! Despite my stepping on her toes, we had a great time. We bought road bikes and took up biking together. We went on kayak trips. And when they finished college, and we had a little money (Wow! You can never save enough for college!), we traveled to Europe together. Woo hoo!
Share your empty(ing) nest stories!