This summer my two teenagers went on a trip with their father for a few days, and I got a glimpse of my future. It was quiet.
As a divorced single mother, I often fantasize about having a calm, clean home. But a few hours after they drove away, as I was preparing dinner for one, I wasn't rejoicing. My daughter is a high school senior, and my son is a freshman. While they were on this trip, I realized that once they both go to college my life will be too quiet. And lonely.
"Even though sending your kid to college is a wonderful thing, and you've done what you hoped you'd do as a parent, you may also experience a feeling of loss," says Melissa T. Shultz, author of From Mom to Me Again: How I Survived My First Empty-Nest Year and Reinvented the Rest of My Life. "That sense is often about facing the inevitable, which is change. Change can be really exciting, but when you're first looking at it, it can also be scary."
Shultz says that the fear has several layers, starting with worrying about how your child will do on her own. "From the first time we hold them, our new goal in life is to protect them, so handing them off and not being there day to day can be a pretty dramatic shift."
Added to the usual worrying about your child's safety and happiness is anxiety about what the change will mean in our own lives. Will my marriage survive? What about friendships? Will I remember who I used to be before I was a parent?
"Those who deal best are the ones who plan ahead," says Carin Rubenstein, a psychologist and author of Beyond the Mommy Years: How to Live Happily Ever After… After the Kids Leave Home. "Create your own adult life that doesn't revolve around your child."
As Susan Sorensen was driving home from the airport after sending off her 18-year-old son Martin to college in Florida, she admitted that the first thing she did when she got to her car was smell the flannel shirt he left on the seat.
But she also said that saying good-bye to him wasn't as hard as she thought it would be. "I do anticipate being lonely [without] Martin, but I have a business and I'm a church musician, so I have things that keep me very busy outside the home. I really appreciate the value of my community, and I look forward to trying some new activities or taking up some pastimes that I dropped to spend time with my family," says Sorensen, who is divorced and in a long-term relationship.
Parents who already lead full lives independent of their children will have an easier time making the transition to an empty (or emptier) nest. Both Schulz and Rubenstein advise making some changes a year or two before your child goes to college, but it's never too late to put some of their advice into practice – even if you just dropped off your child at college. Here are some tips to get you started.
Cut the cord. Start talking about shifting roles and responsibilities, and do less decision-making and problem-solving for your child. Let her make her own appointments and manage a small budget. Not only will she develop necessary life skills, but you will also be learning to let go gradually.
"Our biggest concern was whether she is independent and mature enough, and we think she is," says Charles Wheelan, 51, a professor at Dartmouth College, whose daughter Katrina is starting her freshman year at another institution this fall. The family took a gap year to travel the world together after her senior year. "When we were traveling she did longer and longer solo stints, including three months in Asia. Part of the reason we're not stressed is we've seen her travel and thrive on her own."
Have a family meeting. The dynamics in your house are going to shift, so talk about how that will look and feel. Acknowledging the change and making plans for the future not only helps you, but it also signals to your college-bound child that you are going to be okay and gives them one less thing to worry about.
Prepare your partnership. If you are a two-parent family, an empty nest will change your relationship, for better or worse. That's why Shultz recommends "having a conversation with your significant other about your goals and things you want to do moving forward. Remind each other why you fell in love to begin with."
Schultz advises going on regular dates with your partner, which she and her husband did. "At first, we had a tough time figuring out what to say to each other that didn't have to do with our lives as a family unit," says Schultz, "but eventually we were talking about our own thoughts and feelings, and focusing on having fun."
Strengthen friendships. Having a strong support network helps you through hard times. Reach out and let your friends know what you're going through – it's likely many of them will be going through the same thing. Reconnect with friends you haven't seen in a while.
Rediscover yourself. "Consider your own future – that's the biggest thing," says Shultz. "You need to get out and about and enjoy the world. Mine your childhood for inspiration: What did you like to do as a kid? What made you happy? You have an opportunity for the first time in a very long time to rekindle those interests that perhaps you didn't have time to explore while raising your children."
Take stock of your career. If you've put your career on the back burner to raise your kids, maybe it's time to fire it up again. You're never too old to retrain your brain and learn new skills. On the other hand, if you want to take a step back from your career, now is a good time to make that shift and think about how you want to spend your time.
Embrace the change. "Parents should not look at this as a terrible tragedy but an opportunity to live your own life again," says Rubenstein. "Especially for moms, they spend decades putting their children first; now you've got permission to put yourself first."
Have a plan for dropoff
To help you move through the sadness, Schultz recommends thinking about the transition as a time when you enter a new phase of parenting and take more of a mentorship role while your children move on to adulthood.
Work out how – and how often – you'll communicate with your son or daughter. Come up with a system that's acceptable to both of you. Give them space, but also let them know that it's going to be an adjustment for both of you, especially in the first few weeks. You'll both get it right, but there will be some trial and error.
Take an enjoyable detour on the way home if you can swing it. Visit friends and family, or do some sightseeing. This will leave you with a more positive memory of the trip.
Above all, give yourself time to process the changes. It's a thoroughly human experience, and avoiding feelings doesn't make them go away.