You’ve gotten your child off to college. After 18 years, the moment you’ve always dreaded has come and gone. All the planning and preparation and list making has ended, and your nest is empty, or at least a little less full. What do you do now? Many parents, especially moms, expect this question to be answered instantly.
Empty nesters tend to leap headfirst into something new, taking on a new job or travel schedule or volunteer position as soon as their child is out the door. The thinking is that being fully occupied can make it hurt a little less. But it won’t. It will only leave you stressed and exhausted and still feeling like crying. So don’t do it. Instead, give yourself time to get used to this new way of being.
Just as your child is off discovering his own independence and identity, you need time to do that too. Allow yourself to be a little sad; the tears that start when you pass that empty bedroom are inevitable. Then take a breath and start focusing on some positives. You’re not losing your identity as someone’s mom, but you do need time to figure out who else you need to be.
Here are 8 ways I’ve found to help ease the transition:
- Don’t commit to anything yet. Keep your options open. Well-meaning people will ask you about your plans, their eyes wide as they exclaim, and “what will you do with all that extra time?” It can be disconcerting not to have an answer, but it’s OK. Take a cue from your child, who is right now as you read this out there busy finding new friends, learning new things, and developing new interests. At this point in your life, that’s your job too.
2. Don’t go on a diet now. Eat what makes you feel good. It is tempting to try to focus all your excess energy on a worthwhile goal like losing weight. But any failure is going to feel worse right now than ever. The same goes with cooking at home. If your kids hate artichokes but you love them, cook them to your heart’s delight. They aren’t there to complain, and for the first time in a long time your options are unlimited. You can eat early, or late, or both if that works for you.
3. Don’t limit yourself to old friends. Make new ones too. Don’t get me wrong old friends are wonderful. We couldn’t get through life without them. But many of them are going through exactly what you are going through now. You need them as support, and they need you. But it’s also a great time to reach out and meet new friends who may have different life experiences to share. Meet someone at yoga class, church, work, a local bookstore, or in your neighborhood. Finding someone who likes the same things you do energizes you, and talking about things besides your children will make your heart lighter.
4. Don’t stay in your old routine. Challenge your own expectations. Try some new things, but give yourself some space to enjoy them without committing to any one thing. Take that French cooking class; make a crepe or a macaroon. Interested in redecorating? Paint a wall a new color or buy some new throw pillows, but now is not the time to redecorate the entire house. You don’t have to go bungee jumping, although that’s an interesting alternative, but find ways to liven up your old routine.
5. Don’t schedule too far in advance. Allow space for spontaneity. Don’t try to fill the calendar with to do’s just yet. A lunch date in a week? Great! A travel schedule that keeps you busy for the next year—too much. Allow yourself the flexibility to be spontaneous, just as your child has the chance right now to try new experiences and visit new people and places without scheduling months in advance. Spontaneity is a gift you have the time to enjoy right now.
6. Don’t fall back on oldies but goodies out of fear. Be open to new experiences. Go to an indie movie, or the latest blockbuster, whatever stretches you a bit beyond your comfort zone. Try it as an experience, knowing that stretching your mind and expanding your horizons helps you become more open and interested in the world around you. The same thing is true of music. Let Spotify take over.
7. Don’t feel like you have to fill every hour. Find the joy in free time. Sometimes having free time allows you to experience the world in different and unexpected ways. A friend rediscovered her love of playing the piano once her children had gone. Not having to pick up kids from school or help with homework in the evening opens opportunities for impromptu time with friends, neighbors, and even that long neglected spouse. He is probably missing that kid too.
8. Be kind to yourself and to others. This one isn’t restricted to empty nesters, but a reminder always helps. Remember that this part of your life, and of your child’s life, is a process, not something that needs to be fixed. So if you are having a sad day, give yourself permission to be a little sad. Cry when you need to, then pick yourself up and find something you can do to make the world a little better for someone else.
Stepping into the world of empty nesting brings unexpected challenges. It can be a time of sadness, when every trip by a child’s empty room brings a tear. But it’s also a time to celebrate. You’ve managed to launch a young adult into the world, and you both deserve to celebrate.
Catherine Gentry is a writer living in Houston, Texas. She retired from practicing law to raise her three nearly grown children, and her writing has been featured online at Literary Mama, Grown & Flown, the “Voices” section of the Princeton Alumni magazine, and in the Houston Chronicle, as well as on her blog, “Words Count” https://catherinewordscount.wordpress.com/featured-writing/