I wish I had a nickel for every time someone had warned me against the dreaded “empty nest” during my son’s last in high school. Was I prepared? How were my husband and I going to manage, especially given that we had only been blessed with one of the little bundles?
I got so tired of the question that a part of me couldn’t wait for him to leave, just so I wouldn’t have to think of an answer anymore.
I had taken the advice of one my patients years before who had not seemed to suffer the blight of empty nest. She had simply stated that she had relished each stage of her children’s lives, and thus had been able to let go of each receding stage and watch as the next arrived.
I took her advice, and relished.
We gave homemade birthday parties. We had “Mommy/Rob days.” We cooked together, laughed together. When he became a golfer, I watched a lot of golf. I relished. It had seemed to work, but now was the time to relish college and leaving home.
Hmmm. A bit more difficult.
I can remember walking into my parents’ home after each of them had died; it was a devastating feeling of loss.
Walking into our home after taking our son to college was not equal to that, but something connected to that. There was this awful emptiness. My gut knew that my world had shifted permanently. I had put one of his dirty t-shirts from the bakery where he had been working in a plastic bag and hidden it in my closet before we had left to take him to Vandy. I went upstairs and smelled it.
That first night was very quiet.
I had planned to go to work the next day. I couldn’t. I didn’t know what to do with myself, but I knew I was not in a mental place to be there for others.
I began to allow the enormity of the change to settle into my soul. I didn’t like it. At one point, I crawled into the driver’s seat of my son’s car and got in fetal position. Out of a place I didn’t know existed came a couple of primal screams. “I changed my mind!! Come back!! Come back home!!”
I sobbed for a minute or two.
I felt more than a little ridiculous and went inside.
As I wandered around the house, I was drawn to a picture taken at Christmas about 18 years ago, with my two brothers’ families and myself, my husband and my son. I thought of how I had watched my four older nephews through adolescence and their twenties grow and change — through heartache and challenge, joys and accomplishment. I hadn’t had any problem with them growing up.
Then I looked at the then toddler in my lap.
My tears dried up almost instantly. How could I expect my son not to grow up and away as my nephews had done?
I hate perspective.
I went to the movie. It was Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones in “Hope Springs” , a movie about reinvigorating your marriage.
I knew my husband was going to be so glad that my energies could now be directed toward him.
I seem to remember my father’s delight, after my own departure from home.
What goes around, comes around.
So how do you prepare for your own NestAche?
1. Know what style of family you came from and how it influences your parenting.
Families have varying manners in which they are organized. Some families are more tightly wound around “the family” as the central force in a child’s life. Others stress more independence. ABC’s hit show Modern Family blatantly displays this battle! Cameron and Mitchell chastise each other for parenting Lily differently. Gloria and Jay constantly bicker about how she needs to let go of Manny.
Think of these two kinds of families as two ends of a spectrum. There are pros and cons to both. The healthiest? The ones near the middle.
Why is this important for you to know?
Because if you were reared in the first kind of family, the, “You can only trust family” kind of family, letting go of your child is going to be harder. In fact, the “helicopter parenting” phenomenon is likely to come from this dynamic.
Parents stay involved at a much deeper level with their child, struggling to give over control.
If you were reared in the second kind, the, “Get out there and be who you can be, and by the way, you need to support yourself asap,” you might be too detached. Too uninvolved. I had a patient the other day tell me he was paying rent to his aunt when he was ten. Obviously a problem.
Consider these issues in yourself, your spouse, and the family you are creating. Success in parenting? When your child can leave home as a young adult, still learning but ready to be away from parents’ hands-on guidance.
2. Relish and let go: start practicing now!
Every stage of a child’s life is a fantastic opportunity to practice what “empty nest” will bring you, just in smaller doses. When she goes into kindergarten, instead of dreading the change, welcome it! If you truly relish each stage and do the things that will bring you satisfaction and contentment, you should be able to move with her. To celebrate with her.
When he makes that jump from his tricycle to his big bike, run along side of him and love the moment. From middle school to high school, don’t get out the toddler pictures and think, “He was so cute back then.”
Okay, maybe once in a while. But as a general rule, don’t look back!
That’s the practice part. Relish and let go. Keep moving along with your child. Then you will be ready when the year comes for that child to truly move away.
3. Make sure you are feeding your marriage and caring enough for self.
Whether a stay-at-home mom (or dad) or a parent juggling both, I realize that hearing, “You need to focus on your relationship and yourself” can seem almost laughable. Ever present laundry, dust, bedtimes, school functions, your own work or volunteer responsibilities, church – “And we are supposed to make time for each other?” More difficulty comes when kids have learning disabilities, ADHD, autism, or other mental or medical issues.
“We have focused too much on our kids. That’s all we talk about.”
“She’s always angry with me, so I just don’t talk much.”
“He doesn’t understand that if he would just help me more, I wouldn’t be mad. I would want to be closer to him.”
“If I try to help, I feel like I am doing it all wrong or that’s the way she makes me feel.”
“I am away from my kids so much with work that I don’t feel it’s right for us to get babysitters.”
“There are no babysitters that we can trust.”
If this is you, there’s something wrong. It’s fixable. You just have to prioritize differently. You have to care enough for your self and your marriage. Go to a good therapist if need be. Just take some time.
When your child or children leave, all that’s left is you. And your partner. It’s important to pay attention.
Just enough attention.
So the rest of the nest will enjoy the rest of their lives.
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