You survived the college move-in, the tearful parting, the long September until Parent’s Visiting Day. After the grief and shock to your system, you learned to adjust to the empty nest, and may have even discovered some positives you had never imagined: not having to stock the fridge to capacity, no more enormous laundry piles, a hallway devoid of random shoes and socks.
But the twinge of loss and longing was always there. You missed her terribly, wondered what she was really doing late at night, and worry crept in when you least expected it. Of course, you adjusted to giving her independence, calling on a schedule that did not intrude, and resorting to texts of family pet photos when you were desperate to connect. You hungered for glimpses of her life, but knew that these brief snapshots in time would never replace the daily contact you had for 18 years.
Yet, you adapted. And after four years, a joyful college graduation, and the excitement of a job offer, you are filled with pride. This is what you wanted for your child. This is the next step – a real job, self-sufficiency, adulthood. You are grateful, proud and relieved. And even better – your child is off the pay roll!
So, then, what is the problem? Why is this second launch another hurdle for many parents? After all, you have had four years (or more) to adjust to the empty nest and your child’s independence, and he is doing everything you had envisioned. Why are you sometimes feeling tearful and empty? What is going on?
Four Reminders for Parents of College Graduates
1. Accept that this is another loss.
As your college graduate becomes self-supporting and even more of an “adult,” you lose more of your role as an involved parent. You may feel unmoored just like you did when he first went to college. Much of your emotional energy – focused on his grades, class choices, adjustment with college roommates – is no longer needed. Give yourself time to appreciate that this, too, is a loss. You will move past it, but may need time to grieve over the change in your level of active involvement in your child’s world.
2. Life does not revolve around semester breaks any more.
Don’t expect to see your child for long stretches any more. She only may have two weeks of vacation time at her job – and sorry, parents, but she might not want to spend them all with you! Appreciating that she has truly moved on and has her own life and schedule takes some adjustment.
3. You may have new unexpected worries.
How will he adapt to a new city? Will he feel lonely? What if he doesn’t make it in his new job? Will he remember to get his oil changed/see a dentist/pay his bills? Even though you felt out of the loop when he was in college, there still was an umbrella of support through campus organizations, student life, health centers, and deans who looked out for students. Welcome to the real world now.
4. Time for self-reflection.
Just like when she first went to college, the second launch after college graduation may trigger a self-review of your life’s goals, marriage, career, and even your satisfaction with your home or community. Less involvement in child care – but even less time spent worrying, planning and thinking about your child’s welfare – offer you greater time for reflection about values and what is meaningful to you.
Although there is grief for the loss of your role as actively involved parent, you may welcome the freedom to rediscover long-suppressed interests. It may be time to change career goals, vacation more, enroll in classes, start a new exercise plan, or work on nagging problems in your relationship with your spouse or partner. For the first time in more than 20 years, you can focus on yourself as a priority.
Weathering the second launch takes time. There are no easy answers or trite recommendations (“take a bubble bath!”) that can soothe the loss you may feel. Don’t let anyone try to talk you out of your feelings or “guilt” you out of them (“at least he’s not living in the basement, smoking pot all day”). You have endured loss before, though, and have gotten through it. And yes, this too shall pass.
It helps to remind yourself, though that these are problems you want to have. Your child has found a job, is independent, has moved on, and is on an adult trajectory. You can start to trust that he can take care of himself. If he has gotten this far, he will probably figure out how to pay his taxes or call a plumber. Just like you did when you were his age.
You also might discover a newfound camaraderie. As he matures and is less defensive about “protecting” his independence, he may be more open, forthcoming, and expressive. This improved communication is one of the many positive changes that may unfold along the road ahead. Once your feelings of loss diminish, you should be able to fully appreciate and enjoy this new life phase with your adult child.
Gail Post, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist, in practice for over 30 years. She works with adolescents and adults, with specialties in the areas of eating disorders, women’s issues, parenting, anxiety, and depression. Dr. Post also offers workshops, consultation and public speaking, and writes a popular blog about gifted children and adults, You can follow her at Facebook and Twitter.