a column that was published in September 2012
For many families, this is the first week of empty nest. The long weekend was filled with the bustle of dropping a student off at university or college – packing, driving, moving boxes, and saying good-bye. Once the parents get home, they look around and realize that their lives are dramatically different. After many years of organizing themselves around their child’s schedule, they suddenly have just themselves to think about.
This new feeling can be both exciting and terrifying. Children demand a lot of time and energy – they are like another full-time job for many of us. Once they are out on their own, we have many more hours at our disposal. The idea of filling these hours can be intimidating, especially if parents are feeling sad about their children moving away. Over the many years that I have worked at universities, I have spoken with countless families about how to make this transition, and I made it myself just last year.
My advice for parents is always about being deliberate in how they approach empty nest. Make some conscious decisions about how you will spend your time. Do you have a hobby you neglected when your children began to take up your time? Pick it up again. Do you have something you have always wanted to learn how to do? Take a course. Did you always regret not finishing your own degree? Enroll in online classes so that you can graduate before or with your child. There are endless ways to fill your time. Think of all the organizations in your community that could use your help – volunteer!
I also encourage you to take advantage of your new-found flexibility. You no longer have to plan your meals around your child’s activities or food preferences. Experiment with different foods, put supper off until later in the evening, or dine out more often (it is much cheaper without that extra mouth to feed!). Now that you are not tied to the school calendar, take a vacation during the off-peak time, when it’s cheaper and less crowded. One thing parents often neglect is exercise. When you’re juggling too many schedules, it is easy to put off that time for yourself. Now that you’re on your own, set up a workout schedule that works for you and stick to it.
Empty nesters also have to deal with how their students are handling their experiences away. It is perfectly normal for first-year students to feel homesick, especially a few weeks into the term. Parents can either feed or alleviate that feeling. Keep in touch with your student, but don’t call them too often. When you talk, ask about what they are experiencing instead of filling the conversation with news from home. Send them the occasional care package, but don’t include a letter telling them how much you miss them. And, above all, encourage them to get involved on their campus and to connect with available resources if they are having a hard time. Sometimes it is very tempting to swoop in to the rescue when they are struggling (also known as being a helicopter parent), but they will learn so much more if you simply listen and point out where they can get help instead of taking care of it for them.
After giving this advice for so many years, I had the opportunity to test it myself this past year. After dropping off our youngest at university, Joy and I jumped into being empty nesters with both feet. We took courses, exercised more, ate later, and celebrated our flexibility by taking an off-peak, child-free vacation to Disneyworld. We also had to walk-the-talk about not being helicopter parents as our daughter struggled with some injuries and challenges during her first year. In the end, she came through the year with more confidence because she had to handle things herself.
Now, I must warn you, that sometimes empty nest doesn’t last. Imagine our shock when BOTH of our daughters came back to live with us this summer (our oldest graduated from university). Having them come back seemed to be more difficult to adjust to than having them leave! But we know that we will be on our own again, and we know that we’ll be just fine on our own, filling our time with things we enjoy (like running for public office) while knowing that our daughters are learning and growing and becoming self-sufficient adults.