Before I became a mom, my entire life was wrapped up in my career. I couldn’t imagine why women would get off the work train, just to stay at home to take care of a kid. What did they do during the day, besides change a couple of diapers and feed the kid a couple of times? There was no way I would give up what I had worked for for ten years, just to babysit and sit around. Little did I know. They placed this little bundle of love in my lap, she grabbed my finger, as well as my heart, gave me a huge, toothless smile, as if to say, “I’ve got you now!” Even though I had planned on returning to work after the pregnancy leave, as each day passed I knew. I couldn’t go back.
I loved every minute of being a mom. That became my job, my identity, my life. Even the hard times, the temper tantrums, the messy house I could never seem to stay ahead of, the fact that I rarely groomed myself other than a ponytail and brushing my teeth, the mad scramble to find a sitter for the times my husband and I wanted a date night, the screaming, crying, “Mommy, don’t goooooo!” she screamed when we did leave her with a sitter. I never regretted a moment the decision to stay at home.
Fast forward, 18 years later, during her senior year of high school. Suddenly, without any warning, I became the enemy, and she began pushing me away. We had been so close her entire life. She came to me with her problems, shared her successes, valued my opinions, and cuddled with me whenever she had the chance. Then she just stopped. It was heartbreaking. But at the same time she was applying to colleges as far away from home as possible. She was ready to fly. And as difficult as that last year at home was, it was her subconscious effort to separate. To “foul the nest” as someone told me. In order for her to leave home and travel across the country, she had to become her own person. I don’t know if I had not been a stay-at-home mom whether that time would have been as difficult, but it did prepare me in some ways for the day I dropped her off at college in California and came home to an empty nest.
What it did not prepare me for was that my job description completely changed in one day. Even though my husband and I had planned on leaving our home town and dividing our time between our two favorite places, Colorado and North Carolina, suddenly I didn’t have a job. Sure, I was still a mom, but now her job was to take off and take care of herself, and she did it very well. It’s very rewarding to see your child do well on her own, but suddenly, I didn’t have her very existence filling my days. I watched from afar.
It wasn’t enough that she was living on the other side of the country, but she got off Facebook! So my stalking days were over. Separation and isolation. I had to depend on her to communicate. It was a difficult transition, but it wasn’t as bad as I had imagined.
Researchers are discovering that Empty Nest Syndrome, that general feeling of grief and loneliness that parents feel when their kids leave, is actually not so empty after all , thanks to technology and more moms with fulfilling careers. For working moms, it might be easier, but for those like me, who left their careers, sometimes it’s hard to adjust to the abrupt change when they’re gone, and when you lose the job you’ve had 24/7 for the last 18-19 years. But now, two years later, our relationship has grown by leaps and bounds.
Here are five things that have helped with our conversion to an empty nest.
Embrace having time to do the things you love
Without the time constraints of having kids at home, the possibilities are endless. We are fortunate that my husband can work from anywhere, so we were able to leave town and spend our winters skiing, and our summers at the lake. But even if you don’t have the flexibility to leave town on an extended basis, you can join clubs, take classes, go out to dinner on a school night, travel, join exercise groups, etc. No more waiting until Spring Break or President’s Weekend!
Schedule regular communication
The first year, we had a standing Skype date on Sunday afternoons. We could actually see her smiling face, talk about her week, find out about any concerns she had and talk her through them. It was a treasured time, and helped me feel like I was still doing mom things. Now we don’t have to schedule our calls. She calls us when things are good, and when things are bad. In some ways, we communicate much better now than we did when she lived in our house. Here is one thing I know. They may not appreciate you when they’re at home, but they absolutely do when you’re not around!
Whether it’s exercise, enrolling in classes at community college, binge-watching entire seasons of “The Good Wife”, volunteering, redecorating, or going back to work, it’s important not to sit around. I admit, I have lost days at a time, surfing the web and playing games online. That doesn’t help. Now that you’re not doing ‘parent’ things, you have the time to explore and fill your days with things that make you happy. Turn off the machines and find other things to do. It’s amazing how good that feels.
Connect with Other People
This actually takes a little more effort for me. When my daughter was home, I met other moms through her school or sports activities, so it was very easy to make connections. When your child is not at home, you have to try harder. Taking classes, volunteering, joining clubs, and just taking advantage of any opportunity to meet other people with similar interests is very important. And when you do meet someone with similar interests, take the initiative. Plan a date to go hiking, shopping, lunch, take a class, volunteer. It’s definitely not as easy to make connections without the school activities, etc., but it’s more rewarding when you do.
Re-connect with your spouse (or significant other)
We have grown so much closer over the last two years. With no child in the house, we get to play again! Whether it’s romantic dinners, hiking 14ers, watching movies on the couch, traveling, or having long conversations, we have rediscovered why we fell in love the first time. We both benefit from the fact that without our daughter around, our attention can be focused purely on each other. And it’s nice.
Sure, there are difficult times, mostly logistically, like when she needs a doctor’s appointment right away and doesn’t have a local physician, or when she needs to make sure to register her car, or make summer plans that will be “rewarding”. And sometimes it’s emotional and it tears your heart out that you can’t be there to ease the pain. But when your child “takes care of business” with little to no assistance from you, it’s truly a heartwarming experience. Almost as good as when they walked into kindergarten by themselves, or drove themselves to school for the first time.