I’ve had conversations – both virtual and face-to-face – with thousands of parents (mostly moms) since I began writing about empty nesting and midlife in 2011, from exhausted first-time mothers to joyous and celebrating empty nesters. Each mother has her own parenting story to tell, her unique experience to share, her child or children to love with all her heart. The common thread through many of these conversations is the deeply felt connection these parents have with their children. The invisible umbilical cords that are always there are what bring most mothers both joy and sadness in varying degrees. Whether we have carried them for nine months, or adopted them, or became their mothers and fathers through marriage or fostering or any other way we have brought children into our lives, we raise them – painfully, continually, wholeheartedly, passionately – so that someday, they can up and leave us. This is the painful paradox of successful parenthood.
As the founder of a Facebook community focused on empty nesting, I see posts and comments from thousands of parents from all over the world dealing with the good and the awful of the empty nest. At any hour of the day and night, there are heartfelt words about their concerns, their successes, their failures, and their blessings. There are also many, many moms who cannot understand how their children, now young adults (some of whom are now parents ) have put so much distance between themselves and their parents. Mothers who have not prepared themselves for empty nesting – and most have not, no matter how hard they try – can be shocked by the sudden lack of communication they have with their (not so) suddenly grown-up kids now living on their own. Where once there was a never-ending conversation in the home that started before breakfast and ended right before bed, now there are hours – days – sometimes even weeks – without any word from those kids they love so much.
There is nothing anyone can do to turn back the clock to those simpler, cozier times when our kids were little and cute and needed us to cut their sandwiches and walk them to school. We cannot rewind to when snuggling was the payoff for long days of potty training, homework, meltdowns at the grocery store and backtalk. We will never get back those teen years when sullen, door-slamming, emotionally unpredictable adolescents lived in our homes and alternated between delighting and terrifying us. As empty-nesters, we are free of the constant drudgery, but also the consistent time together. This is an accomplishment, not a punishment.
Yes, sometimes it feels terribly sad that all those years flew by so fast that it makes you stop in your tracks, you are so overwhelmed with nostalgia. And it’s thoughtless and unkind of our kids who don’t call or text or email often enough, who leave to live their lives very separate from us, we who raised them and still love them so much. But this ability for our grown kids to live on their own is the result of good parenting, which is what can make it even more challenging to accept. No matter how proud we are of our independent (or sort of independent) young adults, for many moms and dads, that pride is tinged with loneliness, resentment, and frustration. While we have worked tirelessly and carefully to raise our children to be strong, quality human beings, many parents forget to consider their lives once their children are gone. While there is no way to plan for the emotional shock of an empty nest, preparing for the opportunities empty-nesting bring to us can help ease the transition.
When your last child leaves home, it can be almost as painful as giving birth – and it brings as much change to your life as welcoming your first child into your life did. The pain a successful parent goes through is, on the flip side, an opportunity for empty nesters to find their new independence and flourish as their young adults are doing.