Standing in the doorway of my daughter’s room I take a long look around. Piles of clothes litter the floor, makeup is strewn atop her vanity; a thin dusting of face powder and eye shadow lie undisturbed on the surface. “What a mess”, I think to myself. I wonder to myself how long it’ll take for me to get this room in shape for new paint and curtains. I begin to cry. Again. The second time today and it’s only 10:00 a.m. I feel the sadness wash over me and try to steel myself against it. The sorrow is intense and I feel it deep in my bones.
It’s been nearly a week since my youngest daughter, Skai, decided it was time to move out. Her original plan was to move in February but by the end of December she was chomping at the bit to spread those wings. I wasn’t quite prepared and I’m feeling the ache of her absence so profoundly. So many thoughts and feelings interject my daily routine and I find myself wondering if I’d prepared her for life, for the real world in all its glory and harshness. Hell, I don’t think I’m prepared and I’m nearly 50! It’s funny; my husband and I used to tease the kids about kicking them out when they turned 18 but the reality is that only one of them moved out for good after high school. One would migrate to other states and return briefly to regroup before the next adventure. She recently married and is living a good life in Guadalajara. Her little sister has no desire to move too far away, thank goodness. I don’t know how parents handle having their kids scattered all over the country but I know they do.
The Empty Nest Syndrome is described as feelings of emptiness (rhymes with empty nest! HA!) and depression that parents and caregivers may feel after children come of age and leave their childhood home. Women seem to experience this more than men. Women may also be going through other changes, such as menopause, which could exacerbate their feelings of sadness. Men, too, can be affected by Empty Nest Syndrome but are often less likely to talk about their feelings, as I discovered in conversations with my husband, who admitted that he deeply missed his daughter when she moved to Washington. Just as I felt with my oldest daughter, Shay, it is the little things he misses, such as going fishing or just watching football with her. I had no idea he felt this way.
To be clear, I do want my kids to be self-sufficient and independent. I want them to be functioning members of society and to go after their dreams, grab the world by the lapel and shake the cage; to get as much out of life as they possibly can. Thinking about those things makes me excited for their journeys, their opportunities. As a mother I think our first instinct is to protect them and shield them from their mistakes and, in essence, the world. When Shay was 18 a much-younger friend of mine told me the best thing I could do for her to become a responsible, capable adult was to let her live on her own. She told me she’d learn very quickly how to sink or swim in the world if she were able to rely solely on herself. She was right. Although she faltered a bit at times she has been on her own for a while, living in big cities such as Seattle and Los Angeles with no help from anyone, including me. I admire her for her nomadic nature and for being brave enough to pick up and move to a new place without knowing a soul. She not only survives but flourishes in new surroundings. She is nothing like me and I’m grateful for that.
A new wrinkle surfaced when I spoke to Skai the other night. Our conversation didn’t go as well as I’d intended it to. I found myself criticizing her care of her gerbil, of all things. I struggled not to cry as I spoke with her but soon she was apologizing for my tears and that, my friends, is not okay. She has no reason to apologize as she didn’t do anything wrong and she’s not responsible for my happiness. As soon as I’d hung up the phone I realized that my role as mom is forever changed and maybe that’s where the truth/pain lies. What are the boundaries now that she’s on her own? Can I ask her if she’s wearing her seat belt, if she’s paid her car insurance? I’ve been a mom for 26 years. Nearly all of my adult life I’ve been hovering over my kids and poking my nose in their business. That’s a no-no now. Does she need me anymore? Is there still room for me in her life? For the time being, I suppose I’ll have to feel my way around and try not to fall back into the sadness, because frankly, I don’t like myself when I’m moping. I’ll try to distract myself with creating a guest room out of her old room, something we’ve never had before.SPACE! Maybe I’ll learn a new skill (where did I put that crochet hook?) or paint the kitchen… again. Maybe I’ll write.
There is a bright side to all of this, I promise. Did you think I’d leave you wallowing in darkness and gloom? Many people find that having an empty nest brings new opportunities and freedom to explore things they’ve never done before. You may now be able to start checking things off your bucket list! You can learn new things; take a community education class or learn a new trade. Some people go back to school. You’ll have more one on one time with your spouse or significant other (assuming you like them!) You can travel or explore local exploits, or find something you’re passionate about and volunteer to help others. The list is long and mighty, dear friends. Just because we’re older certainly doesn’t mean we’re done living. We can still shake the cages!
If you’re feeling the blue effects of an empty nest please don’t hesitate to reach out to others who’ve gone through it or are currently experiencing the same thing. If you’re depressed to the point that you’re having difficulty functioning, a good therapist may be able to help. This situation isn’t unique and nearly all parents go through this. You don’t have to suffer alone. It’s important to stay in touch with your kids through phone calls, text, email, and Skype, among other things. This will help reassure you that your kids are fine and are doing well. You may find that they still need your advice and guidance. Remember, we’re all in this together and we’re all rooting for you. We’re learning a new normal and it takes time. Be good to yourself and stay strong!