Okay. I’ll admit it. This post is way more for me than it is for you. My baby just moved across the state to go to college. For years I have been looking forward to and dreading this day in equal measures. I have fantasized about a clean, quiet home free of smelly gym clothes and week-old pizza boxes. And, I have been dreading the end of late night talks and Sunday morning pancake breakfasts and family game night.
So, I cried on the way back from helping my very grown up and capable kid move into his dorm. And today, as a form of self-therapy, I will tell everyone else in the world how they should cope with the enormous transition that comes when your last child leaves home.
What to Expect
First of all, let me emphasize that it is NORMAL to feel sad when children leave home. You are letting go of a role you have filled for the last couple of decades – that of caregiver, nurturer, cop. You are also adjusting to the loss of daily contact with your child. Feeling this loss does not mean that you don’t want them to be fully functional, independent people. Mixed in with the sadness and loss may be intense joy that you have done your parenting job successfully and turned out a competent fully-formed human being.
While most parents deal very well with this stage of life after an initial period of sadness, for some the transition period can be more difficult. It can lead to depression, anxiety over your child’s safety, identity crisis, and marital crisis. The transition from being an actively involved full-time parent to being an independent “adult” again can take up to 18 months to two years. Don’t try to rush – allow yourself the time to grieve, work through the loss, and rebuild your life.
How to Cope
- Be Supportive. Don’t listen to the terrified voice in your head! Both you and your child will be better off if you treat this as a big adventure. Your child will be feeling a range of emotions from being terrified to being over the moon about their upcoming new experiences. Children are often homesick the first couple of weeks – don’t take pleasure in this (not even in secret!). Help them to understand that once they’re into their new routine, it’ll be familiar, fun, and successful. Accept that this is happening and be enthusiastic for your child, offering your support at any time it is needed. It is better for your children to know that you support them, love them, and are willing to be of help to them than to see you fretting and worrying.
- Treat yourself. Don’t neglect yourself while you feel sad. Resist the urge to hide away in sweat pants. Have a regular massage or pedicure, go to a movie or concert now and then, buy your favorite expensive chocolates. Build little moments of happiness into your day on a regular basis.
- Consider a ritual. Rituals play an important part in marking transitions. Think weddings, graduation ceremonies, and baby showers. Having a ritual in which you “let go” of your active parenting role, can be an important and cathartic way to help you to move on. Do a little research to see what feels right. Should it be a small private event or would you like to share it with family and friends? Some things to consider just to get you started: Sail a lantern with a candle in it down a stream, plant a tree, bronze something special of your child’s, hold a ceremony that reflects your faith.
- Write it down. This phase of your life is every bit as valuable, exciting, and important as those early days of marriage, pregnancy and baby-wrangling were. You documented those, right? So do the same now. Honor your experiences by keeping a record. Start a journal. Or try an art journal. .
- Keep in touch. You can continue to be close to your children even when you live apart. Make an effort to maintain regular contact through visits, phone calls, emails, texts or video chats. Don’t wait for them to reach out – they will appreciate your interest even if they roll their eyes. Just don’t overdo it. This is not the time to turn into a helicopter parent. No need to hear about every class every day!
- Stay positive. Attitude is important. Instead of thinking about the “gaping hole” created by the departure of your child, consider all the extra time and energy you might have to devote things that have been on the back burner for a while. Consider a vacation that would have been impossible while the kids were at home. Or relish in your new ability to walk around the house naked! Also, pay attention to all the daily chores that just got MUCH easier – the fridge stays full longer; the bathroom stays tidy; laundry is no longer a never-ending mountain to be dreaded.
- Stay Active. This is a great time for new challenges at work or at home. Staying busy will help fill some of the empty time you may find on your hands. So, make some new friends. Take up a long-forgotten hobby. Push for the promotion at work that would have meant too much time away from the kids before. Spend an afternoon creating a “Top 100” list for the next phase of your life – and then start working through it.
- Rediscover the love of your life. Unless you’re a lone/single parent, you will now be sharing your home with just your spouse. Try to see this as a chance for a renewed love affair. You may find that you both have changed over the years – take time to get to know each other all over again. Plan a special trip – a second honeymoon – to mark the beginning of this new phase of life together and use the time to reconnect. Remember the things that brought you together before the children. Decide to take some of those great adventures you talked about when you were childless.
- Celebrate. You have just achieved a major accomplishment – you have launched your baby into the world as a competent adult! This deserves some recognition. Treat yourself to a special dinner!
- Seek support. If you’re having a difficult time dealing with an empty nest, lean on loved ones and other close contacts for support. Share your feelings. If you feel your useful life has ended, You are crying excessively, or you are so sad, you don’t want to see friends or go to work, it is time to seek professional help. Talk to your doctor or mental health professional.