I am an empty nester, and I’ve had it.
I’ve had it with the sappy articles that come out at graduation time from mothers mourning the loss of our children’s childhood.
I’ve had it with the sad posts that make it sound like our lives are no longer going to be worth living once we drop our kids off at college.
Yes, of course it’s natural to look back and feel sentimental about those swiftly flying years. And of course it’s natural to miss the adorable, chubby babies, the silly, precocious preschoolers, or the energetic, carefree spirits that our kids once were.
But if you find yourself hanging on to those wistful feelings for too long, there’s a good chance your anguish is more about YOU than about them.
Don’t Fear Being an Empty Nester
For one thing, when we see our kids from babyhood into adulthood, it can be a painful reminder of our own mortality. As the years roll on with increasing speed, we can’t help but be reminded that we are getting older, too—closer to old age, and closer to the end of our lives. It’s not a pleasant thought, and if you’re really struggling with this new season of life, this truth could be weighing on you subconsciously, even if you don’t realize it.
Perhaps we’re also allowing guilt to rear its ugly head. Essay after essay comes out advising young parents to cherish every second with their children—“The days are long, but the years are short,” they say; someday we’ll miss these days of diapers and playdates and carpools, they tell us. And suddenly, when all of those things are wrapping up for good and our kids don’t need us as much, we may think, “Gosh, maybe I didn’t cherish the sleepless nights and the tantrums and the homework battles and the rainy soccer games as much as I should have.” And we feel guilty.
If I could offer advice to new parents, I am sure I would join the chorus of those who tell them to cherish those fleeting childhood days, and I’m sure I would try to express to them how time flies by even faster than you think it will. But I would tell them more:
I’d tell them not to lose themselves in this whole parenting gig, because it really is temporary. Don’t stop doing things for yourself. Figure out what you like to do on your own, and do it. Cultivate and tend to your relationships with your friends and your husband or wife. Because if you believe the only thing that brings you joy is your children, you’re setting yourself up for an unhealthy, codependent relationship with your adult children someday.
I’d also tell them that there are parts of every stage of childhood to embrace—but there are also parts that we just have to ENDURE. It’s okay to admit you are struggling with your baby’s colic, or your toddler’s picky eating, or the battles to get your kid on the bus on time in the morning, or their academic or social struggles, or the sullen and angry teen. You don’t have to love every minute of any of that.
Just recognize that your child needs your unconditional love when things are tough. It will all pay off in the long run. It wasn’t until my kids ran into some super-sized painful adult problems that I realized all of the difficult crap we dealt with during childhood was just preparing us all—helping me to figure out how to best support them, helping them to believe that they could make it through anything and that their father and I were always in the corner and they would always be loved.
What I Love About My Young Adults
I’d also tell them that, just like every other stage of parenting, there is much to embrace about the empty nest phase. That deep, unconditional love you felt for your sweet little baby is still there when they grow into a big, hairy young man or a confident, independent young woman. In fact, this emerging adulthood stage is pretty darn great in its own right.
This is the age when our kids may finally kind of “get” what all we, their parents, have done for them. This is the age when they are able to express it, too. When you’re in the thick of dealing with a defiant middle schooler or a troubled teen, you may not be able to imagine that the day will come when they will be able to sincerely thank you for being there for them, and mean it. But that day will indeed come, and they will be the sweetest words you’ve ever heard.
If you’re one of those moms who is reading every sentimental post about graduation with tears in her eyes; if you’re dreading college drop-off with every fiber of your being and you’re not sure you’re going to survive the empty nest, this advice is for you: Embrace this stage, just like all the rest. Marvel at the amazing young adult you’ve raised. Look forward to every exciting new chapter that awaits them. But be sure to enjoy your newfound freedom. Focus on your own interests. Try new things. Keep learning. Have fun with your spouse. Spend more time with friends.
Life moves pretty fast. Don’t waste it longing for the past.
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