Mary Dell writes: The moment our son grabbed the car keys for his first solo drive, I had the proud/heartsick feeling of watching him begin to separate from me. This August, when we drop our daughter at her freshman dorm, I will return to the very quiet house I first imagined as I saw him drive away eight years ago. While my kids have been growing up and increasingly growing away, I have been moving along the empty nest on-ramp. Soon I will arrive at my destination.
This post is sponsored by Life Reimagined
With nearly 22 million students attending American colleges and universities, I am part of a massive cohort. Turns out that one of my empty nest “buddies” is Rob Lowe, who described this moment in a parent’s life as well as anyone possibly could in Love Life:
I’m trying to remember when I felt like this before. Like an elephant is sitting on my chest, like my throat is so tight and constricted that I can feel its tendons, like my eyes are 100 percent water, spilling out at will, down pathways on my face that have been dry for as long as I can think of. I’m trying to remember: When was the last time my heart was breaking?
It will be Lisa, not Rob, joining me at Starbucks to weep in our lattes. Friends since our soon-to-be-freshmen were in third grade together, we launched Grown and Flown to write about the stage of family life when kids begin to slip through parental fingers. Taking another lesson from Rob:
Through the grief I feel a rising embarrassment. “Jesus Christ, pull yourself together, man!” I tell myself. There are parents sending their kids off to battle zones, or putting them into rehabs and many other more legitimately emotional situations, all over our country. How dare I feel so shattered? What the hell is going on?
I realize that writing about an empty nest and living in one are not the same thing, just like sitting, big-bellied and cross-legged on the floor while a Lamaze teacher talks about labor pain is not at all like enduring contractions. The only way to understand childbirth is to have a baby. Ditto the empty nest.
So the question I ponder is how prepared I am for living a life that is no longer kid-centric. For both SAHMs and working moms, once their youngest leaves for college, life is never again as it was. This month I will say goodbye to much that has created structure in my life and taken up precious real estate on my September-June calendar. No longer will I volunteer for the PTA, watch my kids play sports, or sprint to the grocery store to pull together a family dinner.
What I may miss the most is sitting down with cheese and crackers and my kids at the kitchen table after school. I have adored hearing the precious bits they reveal about their days and know that much of the info I get come August will be delivered in a text message, no longer face-to-face.
It has been our good fortune at Grown and Flown to have met, both on-line and in person, countless other parents who are nearing or already in their empty nest phase. Many are working hard to make this pivot point in their lives less about mourning the loss of little children in the house and more about personal re-creation. We have learned from and been inspired by them and many ask the same question: What next?
The chaotic diversions inherent in raising children cease, and we suddenly find ourselves with time to reflect. What did we do right? Where did we fail? How do we spend our remaining time? And who will show up to help with the transition?
It wouldn’t be that hard to make this transition more pleasant — and more productive. First of all, it would be useful if we began to think about post-parenting years long before they arrive.
As my kids began to grow more independent, I began to change how I spent my time. I started volunteering with my dog at a hospital and traveled more with my husband. I reconnected with my college, exploring the varied resources offered to alumni. But even with Grown and Flown to keep me busy writing and connected online, I wonder what else I should and can be doing now that my active, in-the-house-mothering days are drawing to a close.
Last weekend, ironically, while Mother’s Day was winding down, I finished a book that creates a framework for seeking the answers to the what next question. Life Reimagined: Discovering Your New Possibilities had me at page 2: “It is a map and guidance system to help people navigate a new phase of life.” Written by bestselling author Richard J. Leider and Fast Company co-founding editor, Alan M. Webber, Life Reimagined is both a book and an interactive website created under the auspices of the AARP.
There are personal stories of both ordinary individuals and celebrities like former Today Show anchor Jane Pauley and musician/producer Emilio Estefan all of whom experienced trigger moments that lead them, successfully, down a new path.
It is this new path I will search for in the aftermath of saying goodbye to my youngest child. As Rob describes how he felt watching his son turn to walk back into the dorm:
I close in to hug him, but he puts just one arm around me, a half hug. “Peace,” he says, a phrase I’d never heard him use until he said the same thing to his little brother in the driveway. Then he turns on his heel and strides away. From his body language I know he won’t turn to look back; I know why and I’m glad. I watch him until I can’t see him anymore, until he’s swallowed up by his new friends and his new life.
This post is sponsored by Life Reimagined, a guide to answering your own What’s next? questions. All opinions are my own.
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