On Becoming an Empty Nester

On Becoming an Empty Nester

Have you noticed that there are parties when children “graduate” from nursery school (really?? They are 4 years old…one would hope that they will continue their education…). A few years later, there is the “moving up/graduation” extravaganza when the little ones finish 5th grade. At least in New York, this completion of the fifth grade includes, but is not limited to, a Broadway Show, being in a play, countless parties and a ceremony. A mere three years later, 8th grade is finished and again there is pomp and circumstance, although surprisingly at a lower decibel than 5th grade. Perhaps the ornery 13-year-old is not as endearing as the 4-year-old or 10-year-old? Not to worry. Sweet 16’s and high school graduation and college graduation are all marked by jubilation and celebration. Later there are engagement parties, wedding showers, the wedding, the baby showers (followed shortly by the nursery school graduation) ….

We as parents run and we run and we run, spinning ever faster.  And then one day, these small people whose every move we have documented and celebrated, leave for college. There are of course “going away” parties for the 18 year olds as they set off to make their mark on the world, or at least at the off-campus parties. But what about the parents whose heartstrings have been frayed a million times as we have rushed the kids to the hospital, watched their hearts get broken, picked them back up, gone to every play, every freezing raining game, quizzed them in spelling and advanced physics, done so much laundry that it would make us cry to think about it…where is the Empty Nest Shower? The What’s-Next Bucket List party?  I move that this major life transition for the parents not be treated as mundanely as taking out the recycling on a Thursday evening but celebrated. Is it the guilt that we should not celebrate that our children are not home? Are we just too worn out from so many sleepless nights?  It seems to me that such a momentous change in life should be celebrated.

It’s not as if I don’t and won’t miss the boys every minute of every day. Anyone who knows me at all knows that my heart beats Mark-Timmy-Jack, Mark-Timmy-Jack. That will never change whether they are standing right next to me or studying and working at the far reaches of the earth. But the truth is the everyday parenting responsibilities come to a screeching halt. One can curl up in a fetal position and wait for them to return at Thanksgiving OR one can take a nap, shave both legs ON THE SAME DAY, and then reassess. When was the last time you actually had free time? A night to yourself? An unscheduled weekend?  You can only clean out the closets so many times. What would you do if you had a free day? What would you do if you had successfully launched all of your children in the direction of their dreams and now could actually attend to your own?

What an opportunity! And again…will I cry in August when I drop my youngest child off at college? 100% yes. I wept for 3 days when he started kindergarten. I missed him every day when he was at sleep away camp. And I still have dreams that it is 11:15 am and I forgot to pick him up at nursery school. My day has come to a hard stop at 3 pm for the last 18 years. It would be silly to think that the clock won’t strike 3 pm in September and I won’t think of Mark-Timmy-Jack, because I will. Every day. Probably forever.

I myself graduated from college and got a job that summer, starting night school for my MBA that winter, was engaged by the next summer, married the next, and within 2 years was Mark’s mother. I carried him on my hip through my MBA graduation. And I wouldn’t change a thing. There was Timmy and there was Jack and running my business and checking on them and being there for them and taking care of the house. And now? Now I can catch my breath for just a moment and think about what I might want to be when I grow up. Do I want to travel any place in particular? Take a class? Learn something new? So, it is the end of an era, yes. I have loved every single minute of having the boys at home. Every single one. I did it my way and have no regrets. And guilt-free, I’m now allowing myself to daydream about what the next chapter will be like.

So, if you have a friend whose only or last child is leaving for college this summer, avoid saying things like “it’s all over for you now.” “What will you do with yourself?’ “Wow, I bet you will be lonely when they leave.” (And yes, people have already said all of the above to me. I was good and did not punch them in the mouth, but it was fun thinking about it).  I can guarantee that they are already wondering these things and don’t need to be reminded. You might consider saying, “congratulations!” “Good job!” “Let’s have lunch soon…I’d love to hear about your new plans!”  Perhaps a “participation trophy” which we all disdain would finally be appropriate.

“In appreciation and recognition of participating fully in your child’s life and education, while keeping them safe for these past 18 years, __________ (fill in name here) is hereby awarded this certificate of completion for the Course of Parenting 101.”

For the parents of small children who feel like the days last forever and they will never have free time again, let’s have lunch in September.  See you then!

Wishing you health, hope, and happiness,

Colleen Walsh