The summer of 2012. That’s when my only child left for college; so that’s the year I began dealing with empty nest and letting go. It was a difficult adjustment.

What a difference the passage of time can make. Four years later, not long after my son had graduated from college –  I was headed to work. I was in a hurry but had forgotten that it was mid-August and the beginning of the school year. Much to my initial dismay, but then my eventual delight, I got stuck in a long line of cars, waiting to enter an elementary school’s drop-off point. And marching next to my car was a colorful parade of families as they made their way along the sidewalk.

Moms were pushing baby carriages. Dads were carrying sleepy, tousled toddlers on their shoulders.Younger kids clasped the hands of their older brothers and sisters, dressed in not-a-spot-on-’em-outfits. Brightly-colored backpacks tightly fit onto their little bodies. Some smiled. Others stared down at their feet, perhaps overwhelmed. What looked like the occasional fourth grader, far too mature for all of this pomp and circumstance, walked well in front of the family. Even the occasional family dog was along, wondering what this new morning ritual was and whether or not it involved food.

It was wonderful.

Six years of saying hello and goodbye — and letting go…

I vividly remember the hellos and goodbyes of each year my son went to college – and now the ones that are part of him living 1500 miles away.

Before his sophomore year, for example. It had been a mere two days between ending his summer job and leaving for college, but he was driving himself back to school. “There’ll be guys there to help. Y’all don’t need to come.”

He’d packed his car. Guitars. Golf clubs. Clothes thrown in wherever they would fit. Not exactly as neatly packed as his father would have done it –but it worked.

I’d made one contribution to his sophomore return. He’d asked me to sew on a button. This was a major feat since my tenth grade teacher, Mrs. Mitosinka, only gave me a B in Home Ec if I promised never to sew again. But my son asked me to sew on a button, so I sewed on a button.

My son and I tightly hugged good-bye.  It may have been only two days, but the time had been fantastic. There were huge tears in my eyes as he drove away, although I brushed them away, hiding them and trying to smile gayly with a jaunty wave.

But the now-familiar dull ache crept once again into my awareness. .

That Christmas break, he announced that he wasn’t coming home for spring break. So, yes, it was a banner year for me.

What letting go feels like…

A few years of practice have made a difference. Letting go gets easier — or maybe just more familiar.

We parents love our kids. We watch them grow. We watch them change. We worry –hopefully not too much. We pray. We sweat out the hard stuff. We relish it all.

And if we’re healthy and they launch well, we let go. 

Part of your new world is familiar — the part where she texts you and says the same goofy thing she always says or he only answers your text after four tries. All that’s familiar.But then comes the unfamiliar. Within a few months, she’s dyed her hair and changed her major to engineering. He starts putting tomatoes on his salad and takes up rock climbing.

Where has your son who detested tomatoes gone? What has happened to your daughter who wanted to teach elementary school?

Your child is becoming someone you don’t know quite as well as perhaps you did. Or thought you did. You can work to stay with the changes and try to understand your child’s new world — or you can get lost and not know your place. Or you can feel some mixture of the two.

Your child is transitioning — changing — just like you did. Remember? And letting go is part of your transition to a different definition of parenthood.

The consistency of time and the inevitability of change… 

My grandparents had a gorgeous old Grandfather clock. I used to love its deep resonant sound.

Tick… Tock… Tick… Tock…

It was an inevitable, tangible reflection of time passing. Yet it was also comforting to know that each tick was consistent. Right there. Inevitable.

As a therapist, I watch people go through changes. Some have been changes they chose and purposefully created. Others have been changes caused by trauma or losses that they had to trudge through, and somehow keep going.

Yet those changes are as inevitable as the tick tock of my grandparents clock.

I’ve let go of my old definition of motherhood. What has really helped has been not to view my empty nest — as loss. I view it instead as change. And I know I’m lucky. So many people have adult children whose choices are painful to watch, and often require a continuation of active helping, or at least trying to help. Drugs, alcohol, abusive relationships, or mental illness can be a huge factor at this age. It’s hard for those parents to know what to do.

So it’s definitely the end of a certain time, or a way of being together. But it’s not loss.

Loss is when something is gone. Forever.

Redefining parenthood…

The challenge for me, and perhaps you, is how to redefine yourself.  It’s not my responsibility anymore to check up on whether or not he got his teeth cleaned, or is he getting enough sleep, or is he going through something he needs to talk to someone about. He’s got all that.

Then what does motherhood look like once your child has left the nest?

Today, motherhood feels like waiting to be asked, or needed. Looking for small things you can offer, or do for fun, that would brighten your child’s day. Giving out an occasional piece of advice.

Loving them no less fiercely, but staying out of the way.

I admittedly would love it if my son weren’t in LA.  I would enjoy having him pop by after work or bring friends over for spaghetti and meatballs. I would like to see him enough where we might get on each other’s nerves, or have an occasional squabble. (Actually, that happens anyway, come to think of it.)

It looks, for now, that my mothering will be the long distance variety. That’s part of the redefinition.

My mother used to say, “There are no boring things, only boring people.”

Maybe empty nest is the same.

“Empty nest is only empty if you settle for an empty life.



You can hear more about mental health and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!

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Originally published on August 19. 2018. Updated and republished on July 16, 2022.

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