After the Last Child

“You will miss me the most,” my last child surprised me by saying, “because after I’m gone it is going to be really, really quiet here.”  And there it was, the truth out of the mouth of a sixteen year old, a truth that summed up so much about parenting.  There is something special about eldest children.  We don’t love them any more than the others, but it is their very existence that changes us from self-absorbed young adults into doting parents.

Speaking for myself, no one person ever transformed my life so dramatically.  But my youngest son has a point, his departure will bring a similar, massive change to my life. My oldest child may have made me a parent but my youngest child will make me an empty nester.

Our Youngest Children: As they become teens and get ready to leave for college

Mary Dell and I began Grown and Flown because the transition to the empty nest is a slow one and the changes that happen to us as mothers and families are profound. For us the process began the day our eldest sons laid their hands on their freshly minted driver’s licenses and it will continue until our youngest children have someplace else to call home.

As we each have more than one child, the march to the empty nest is a long journey and the transition will take a decade or more, or just about the same amount of time that our kids were little. During this decade our families are adjusting and readjusting to our kids getting ready to leave, leaving, coming back only to leave again and, when we least expect it, come home again.  I feel a little like an air traffic controller, someone else is scheduling when they come and go, I am just trying to make it all happen smoothly.

But through these years of flux it is our youngest child who stands between us and our empty nest. This is the child who was dragged along to the activities of older siblings, may not have received the attention he deserved and was rarely the first to do anything in our families.  This is the child who was left behind as siblings endured the college process, found their places and moved on to life’s next stage. If a family has an audience, it is its youngest child.

When our older children wind down towards the day they leave, during that poignant senior year, there is a gripping realization that this is the child’s last birthday at home, the last time we will be watch them play with their team or the last back to school night when we will get to enjoy the excitement of their new year. When my youngest son begins the countdown it is not that I won’t go through this again with him, I won’t go through this again with anyone. He will move on and so will I.

But before our youngest children leave home something wonderful happens. Our oldest children are only children in their toddler years.  Our middle children may never have this experience but  our youngest child become a sort of only child on the doorstep of adulthood.  And for a year or two or five we have a special time to share with them.  What we may lose in enthusiasm and novelty we gain in being more relaxed and sure of our parenting.  With our last child we can be the parent we always hoped to be.

My youngest child watched me miss his brothers, he watched me adapt to their departure with pride and tears. But in reality, he is right, because just as his brother’s arrival did decades earlier, his departure once again changes everything. I will miss him the most.

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Grown and Flown…because parenting never ends.

About Grown and Flown

Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan are the co-founders of Grown and Flown the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. They are writers (Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author), moms, wives and friends. They started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and are co-authors of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

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