How to Avoid Empty Nest Syndrome
Going away to college is a life change for students and parents alike. It’s okay for parents to ask what they want out of life now.
From the moment we become parents, our lives change. By necessity, we make sacrifices for our children. Family activities and even friendships often revolve around children’s interests, so our lives change when they leave. Even when we’re giddy at the thought of all that free time, their absence is sorely felt.
Tom Lenihan, a widowed single dad of a college senior from Ambler, PA anticipated this. In the days that led up to high school graduation “I could see my role as parent was going to drastically change. I wasn’t going to be needed. That was devastating,” he says.
Anticipate the separation
Jodi Silverman, certified life coach and founder of Moms Who Dare in Maple Glen, PA, says the empty nest often begins as early as high school, when kids start to need parents less. She encourages moms “to make space in their lives for themselves as soon as they possibly can.” This can be something simple like read a book, go to the gym or take a class.
A mom of a college student and a college grad, Silverman says, “The way we ‘mom’ needs to shift. Expect to feel sad,” she says. “That’s okay. Have that pity party, but then pick yourself up and go do something. This is the beginning of something great for everybody. We send our kids off to do great things. We too can grow, learn and meet new people.”
Sheryl Ott, founder of Montana-based Dare to Detour, organizes an annual retreat to help women discover or reconnect with their passions. She says she expected to miss her kids when they went away to school, but “was surprised by how empty the house felt. I did not expect a physical reaction,” she says. “It felt like the vibrancy came down about five notches.”
‘I don’t know how to cook less’
Many parents agree that the everyday changes are a challenge. Jyothi Prasad, a mother of two college students in Newark, DE, says, “I don’t know how to cook less. I wonder if I need smaller pans. No matter what I make, there’s so much. My freezer now has a lot of food.”
Lenihan says the lack of communication and changed dynamic with his daughter is another adjustment. He remembers something similar from his college years, but, as a parent, it’s tough. His daughter now wants him to be her friend, but he’s not ready to go from parent to buddy.
Prasad has had a similar experience.
“I see them when they need something,” she jokes. “I miss them. I miss the banter. I miss the company. Right now, my daughter wants to be left alone. She used to tell me everything; now she tells me I don’t need to know. I think about how I was and tell myself she’ll come back.”
On the other hand, she says, she and her husband can now be spontaneous. “We are able to just go out and see a movie in the afternoon. That’s something we haven’t done in years.”
She also welcomes her “me time” in whatever form that takes. After the kids left, she started “de-nesting.” She finally emptied a box that had been sitting for 15 years, which she found therapeutic. “At 10 in the morning,” she says, “I sat and sorted Legos.” She catches up on projects and plans to volunteer and travel; she looks forward to one-on-one visits with her father.
A new career path
Going away to college is a life change for students and parents alike. It’s okay for parents to ask what they want out of life now. Silverman tells moms to “dare to shift the focus to yourself. Reconnect with yourself, your community, your spouse, your dreams. Try new things. Change something up a bit.” On a professional level, ask yourself, “Do I really enjoy what I am doing or is it just work?” Maybe it’s time to pursue that promotion that involves more travel or change careers.
Ott says she decided to “do something for myself and make money doing it” after 18 years as a stay-at-home mom. She took a class called “What’s Next” where a homework assignment led to the creation of Dare to Detour when she realized she needed “a detour from my day to day.”
Silverman’s search for community led to the creation of Moms Who Dare. “At all stages, from PreK through college, moms look for community. The empty nest is not a time to go it alone. Find other moms. Grow, learn and have fun with them.”
Kim Yavorski is an Ambler, PA-based freelance writer.