Friday, May 25, 2007

Advice for Empty Nesters

"We were feeling what so many talk about as the 'empty nest' syndrome. Thorough devastation." Jenny Coffey

The Inquirer's ace Metro columnist Dan Rubin wrote a funny, touching, spot-on piece this week, Pain of preparing for an empty nest. Dan and his wife face a double whammy as their twin boys both head off to college in August.

Our son graduated college last summer, got a great job, lives in his own apartment. So we've had to face a rolling series of Empty Nest Traumas. And I have some coping advice to offer.

Believe me, it's not easy. And anybody who claims to be thrilled their kids are leaving home is either lying or doesn't have a genuinely good relationship with them. Unless of course the "kids" are pushing 30.

But if you've raised your children right, you can handle this major life-altering transition right too. Not, however, without a few--or many--tears.

The Back Story
As an only child, our kid's at the Independent end of the spectrum. Never in his entire childhood did we have to go get him because he was homesick. He loved the fun and freedom. We loved the privacy.

I still remember that first time at Bala Cynwyd shopping center as the buses pulled away toward summer camp. Mothers began sobbing on fathers' shoulders. Some kids' tearful faces could be seen pressed against the bus windows.

My husband and I just grinned at each other. I pumped my fist in the air in the universal sign of "YES!" And Mike was doing the same thing on the bus.

I like to think he grew up with such self-confidance because we gave him a solid, safe base that allowed him to venture out securely, without the need to check back in all the time to be sure we were still there.

If you raised kids in a similar way, they--and you--will be fine. Ultimately.

A Little Rebellion
They will need to test you, especially the summer between high school and college.

Prepare for it. Put aside bail money.

They will practice drinking to excess. They might--god forbid--think they can drive that way. They will do incredibly stupid things, making you wonder what alien life force took over your formerly polite, well-behaved honor student. You just have to hope for kindly police officers with kids of their own.

The legend in this house is the panicked phone call during a raging thunderstorm, "Mom!!! I tried to cross the Gladwyne ford and the car's floating sideways into the stream! There's water on the floor and it's getting higher! What should I do???"

To be fair, he was driving the Jeep Grand and there was a current TV ad showing the same model easily crossing a stream. With the amused help of Dad and the local police, he and the car made it out, slightly damp but alive.

No matter what yours does, forget Responsibility Speeches. Instead, stress cabs, which you will pay for. Or stress that you'll pick them up any place, any time if they're too impaired to drive.

Stress condoms. Over and over. Stress your address. Stress not losing the cell phone ... stress keeping it charged and turned on.

Above all, notice that the key word here is Stress. Get used to it. If you can make it through this summer, you'll have a leg up on the years to come.

My Amazing Sad Truth
We felt ready for the transition to college. We reminded our son of his natural ability to adapt, make friends, fit in. He was excited, up for the challenge. My husband and I were looking forward to the privacy we'd enjoyed every summer he went to camp.

We took him to school, helped him unpack, didn't linger. When we left he was happy, relaxed and confident, had already lined up a basketball game, a dinner plan and even a date for the weekend. Typical of our independent kid. What a relief.

But. This time as we left him on his own and my husband pointed the car back to Philly, I didn't pump my fist. I didn't yell, "YES!"

Instead, without warning, I started to sob. I couldn't stop. I curled up on the seat weeping uncontrollably. To this day I don't really get it. But my child was gone and I was heartbroken.

We got home and I went to bed. Pretty much stayed there for 3 months. Not like me, but true.

When he called I was bright and chipper on the phone. I listened attentively to tales of college life, offered advice when asked, added money to his bank account, sent things he'd forgotten, reminded his father to remind him to use condoms.

The rest of the time was a blur of pain and loss.

I made it through Thanksgiving, apparently my same perky self. When he left my despair returned full force. I was inconsolable.

Then he came home for a month for Winter Break. We all went to Florida to see my folks. Back home, he and I shopped for stuff he needed. I cooked his favorites. Did mountains of laundry. We talked and laughed and hugged. His high school friends came and went as usual.

He was still happy, relaxed and confident. Maybe even more so.

And just like that, my world righted itself. I shed a few tears after he left--which continued each time for 4 years--but the worst was over.

I slowly adjusted to being a contented empty nester as he easily became a strong nestling out in the world.

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Blogger Stef the engineer said...

The first time I came home from college and DIDN'T bring washing home (because I'd done it all there) my mum spent an hour in tears. From then on, whenever I came back, I always made sure I brought back one small bag of washing for her to do...

11:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is brilliant! Really great advice, have printed it for my friends. Funny too.

5:44 PM  

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