These days, my only son Rob is traveling at breakneck speed through his twenties. I’ve ridden many waves of motherhood, gradually transitioning from hands-on mom to empty nest mom to now a much more hands-off-but-always-available mom.
That letting go process happened slowly; as time marched on. Whether I was ready for it or not, each new phase came rolling in.
“Mom, can I have a snack?”
“Mom, will you take us to the pool?”
“Mom, can I borrow the car?”
“Mom, you know I’m not coming home spring break. Right?“ This last was asked with a tender, somewhat tenuous smile as he put his arm around me; all I could do was smile back at that infectious grin.
I’ve had my ups and downs in this letting go process. The ups have been all about watching him create his own life. Having the time to begin to blog and podcast. My husband and I traveling together; more time with friends. But I’ve had to grieve the loss of all that abundant youthful energy around the house. I missed the den being constantly messy. Worse still, I felt awkward in my new role as onlooker when we visited him at college, not sure of where I belonged in his new world.
I struggled at times not to miss what had been. But I also am quite aware that many parents wish for exactly what I do have – a now grown child whose path isn’t necessarily perfectly clear, but who hasn’t been derailed by drug use, for example. He hasn’t been drawn to chaos – as some are. That is a huge blessing.
And I eventually discovered something else that helped. In fact, not just helped. It was greatly empowering.
How letting go with intention heals the grief of empty nest…
It comes down to one thing – you have to choose, with intention, to let go.
When I hear from parents who struggle with depression after their children leave home, they might say, “I feel robbed.” They feel victimized by time itself, bringing with it unwanted closure on the hands-on years of parenting.
And yet, this feeling of a child being torn from you isn’t good for you, or for your child. Life isn’t yanking them away from you. You’re not a victim. You’re sad.
Think about it. As a parent, you’ve already had a lot of practice in adjusting to a new normal. The getting-no-sleep phase, the diaper years, preschool, grade school, teenage years…then comes graduation from high school, young adulthood and whatever choices they make going forward. The new phase has always been right around the corner, even if you weren’t actively considering it as such. And, let’s face it, some phases have been much more pleasant than the others.
Each time, it’s been important to let go when those years were done.
Empty nest doesn’t have to be one that’s too painful to bear.
Only your prominence in your child’s life changes. Not your significance.
Your children are never yours to keep; they are a temporary gift to nurture and cherish. Ideally, from their first years, only your prominence in their lives will decline. Not your importance, nor your significance.
If you relish each and every stage of your children’s lives, with intention, you’re much more likely to be able to avoid looking back or clinging to one stage or the other. Because not only is it impossible to go back in time for one more afternoon of pushing your giggling little one on a swing, or playing Legos together, or snuggling reading board books, before you know it, you’ll be transitioning yet again. Even the more difficult phases, whether terrible twos or surly teenage years, will likely one day be missed.
Do your best to relish the each stage, then acknowledge their importance in your life as they evolve into the next one.
Let’s use something non-child related as an example. Years before my son was born, I owned my absolutely favorite-of-a-lifetime black evening outfit. I wore it singing jazz in the late 80’s. It was backless, with a soft, silky fabric, a plain classic front and nothing adorning the waist. The pants flowed freely.
I thought it was spectacular and channeled my inner Meryl Streep whenever I wore it.
But when I became a mom, there weren’t a lot of places to wear my elegant attire. I certainly couldn’t wear it to work. Plus, frankly, it became a bit snug in places. Okay… quite snug.
I gave it away, quite purposefully. Its time had passed.
Kids aren’t clothes, obviously. But there’s a fundamental similarity in the process. Any time you can claim intentionality, it’s very empowering…this is especially true when facing a painful situation.
Intention gives you back a sense of control.
You can make a vow to yourself. And each vow will offer you a sense of control over a process that has seemed out of control.
Here are some vows to consider:
I will, with intention, be grateful to see my child create a life of their own. Not everyone has that good fortune.
I will, with intention, realize that my role will change, but not my significance.
I will, with intention, not wish I could have the past back.
I will, with intention, not harangue about texts left unanswered, or calls that I love to get coming only from time to time. I will not make it personal.
I will, with intention, realize that I will always be Mom (or Dad).
And then, my own smile returns.
I will, with intention, remember to smile.
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Originally published on Midlife Boulevard; revised and posted on April 30, 2016 and further revised and republished on May 13, 2022.