The question of what comes next kept popping into my head throughout her last year at home: as she narrowed her choices, received acceptances and chose a college, and, finally, as we strolled around Ikea and Target to shop for her dorm room.
“You’ll be miserable,” a friend of mine said, recommending long walks as an antidote.
“The empty nest is underrated, so enjoy it while you can,” another friend said in a wistful tone. Her son had just moved back home after dropping out of college.
I received plenty of advice about what to expect. Although empty nest syndrome is not a recognized clinical diagnosis, my conversations with other parents indicate that many experience a dark period of depression and crying. So, it was with some trepidation that my husband and I drove the seven hours home after dropping off our daughter, and started our new chapter as empty nesters.
The dire predictions didn’t come true. While I missed my daughter and mourned the end of a stage of life, I also discovered exciting new opportunities.
Here is some advice for parents who are starting this journey.
Expect a period of transition
All life changes require some adjustment. I thrive on plans and predictability, so this was particularly stressful for me.
“Your children may not be in touch as often as you would like them to,” warned the counselor at parent orientation. “It’s nothing personal; they’re trying to establish their independence.”
“What?” I whispered to my husband. “She won’t even return my texts?” I had believed communication would be frequent and easy, because my daughter, like most teens, is practically fused to her phone.
That parent session left me anxious, and I spent the early weeks of my daughter’s first semester consumed by tiny details: How often should I text or call? How often should I send care packages? Where is the line between being supportive and interfering? Those (and a million other) questions buzzed in my brain as I tried to quickly establish a new routine. Then, I realized that finding our balance would take time.
In the end, my worries about communication proved unfounded. My daughter and I talked and texted all the time while we developed our new routine. She called me between classes or on her way to symphony rehearsal, and I sent her daily pictures of our cats. I tried to follow her lead and encouraged her to tell me what she needed. Throughout this time, I reminded myself that we were in transition and that life would eventually settle down. It did.
Be open to new routines
As I got more accustomed to our empty nest, many parts of my life began to feel itchy, like an old sweater that no longer quite fits. Routines I had followed for years were suddenly dated. Family dinner, once a sacred priority, was the first victim. Within a few weeks, my husband and I had reverted to our pre-child habit of eating leftovers on the couch as our dining room transformed into my new workspace. Although that was a minor tweak, I was surprised by how quickly I let go of a once-crucial ritual.
I researched transitions and learned they are not inherently difficult or easy. It just depends on our mind-set. Accepting that change is a part of life, and viewing it as a challenge rather than a threat can help us navigate transitions and grow from them. Perhaps I had accepted the empty nest as a part of life’s journey, or maybe I was tired of cooking dinner. Either way, as I grew used to our new routines, I ventured out of my comfort zone: I went zip-lining (I’m terrified of heights), did a guest appearance on a podcast and took up hot yoga. Letting go of old habits and seeking new adventures helped me embrace the transition.
Consider larger changes
Most parents adjust their lives and schedules to accommodate their children. Once the kids leave home, it opens the door for you to contemplate big transformations.
For me, that meant deciding it was time to leave my teaching job. The decision was difficult. I had loved my job, co-workers and students, but the role I had inhabited for many years wasn’t right for me anymore. Minor nuisances that at one time I barely would have noticed now loomed large and seemed impossible to navigate.
Leaving was terrifying, but there’s something exhilarating about the prospect of starting over in my mid-40s. I’m going to finish some long-postponed projects and spend time reflecting on what I envision for the rest of my life . Also, my husband and I are taking a long hiking trip through Tuscany. We are not trying to celebrate the empty nest, but to launch our next chapter together.
Daniela Loose is a writer and former teacher. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Scary Mommy and Grown and Flown.