My 18-year-old “kid” heads to college in 10 weeks (not that I’m counting). And my colleague tells me that her own mom took about 10 years to navigate this transition. Apparently, perimenopause can last that long, too.
It’s a cruel fate for those of us with a uterus—“empty nests” in more ways than one. My body and soul feel gutted, and I’ve lost my pound of flesh in this bittersweet bargain called parenthood.
Unfortunately, my psychologist’s “knowledge” of this developmental stage does me no good right now. Adolescent individuation, this normative process of finding one’s sense of autonomy and separating from one’s family, sounds perfectly reasonable on paper, but it means that your children actually leave you.
It helps to share the sense of loss with my friend Debbi. We were carpool moms back in middle school together. She likens this summer limbo phase to a fast-moving train. The warning lights are flashing, and the ride is coming to an abrupt stop soon. Time eludes us—and the warning lights intensify with our fears and regrets. Is she prepared (enough) for this transition? Why didn’t I give her more responsibilities at home? Why didn’t I give her more space to grow on her own?
I can’t help running through all the mistakes I’ve made. I’ve been overly attentive, caught up in my own anxieties, lurking at her bedroom door with questions…always questions. COVID threw us together, and now she’s making up for lost time, catapulting herself into her social life: a new job, travel plans, and more. And this is all good. Yet I’m still standing at that figurative door, asking if she needs anything. “No, not really,” she replies. “Not now.”
And now I am facing my self, and a gaping black hole in my heart the size of this entire country, which is how far away from me she will be in the fall.
“The bad news is that time flies,” says entrepreneur Michael Alshuler. “The good news is that you’re the pilot.” I really don’t feel like much of a “pilot” right now. In fact, it feels like my piloting years are just about over. I feel pretty useless these days.
Research confirms that adults’ sense of purpose takes a big hit when their kids leave the house. Personally, I feel like the figurative rug has been pulled out from under me, and I’m not quite sure who I am or who I will be. So much of my identity is wrapped up in my helper-mama role. But if I am going to reckon with this spiritual identity crisis, I need to find a way to navigate this profound sense of loss.
Instead of diving into self-exploration, I recently decided to draft a noble, motherly, end-of-summer letter to my daughter, offering my best “college transition” advice. But here’s the kicker: Everything on the list is also applicable to me as a parent. So, here it is: four suggestions for everyone who is preparing for or living in a newly emptied nest.
1. Reach out
My first wish for my college-bound teen is that she won’t be stuck in her dorm room feeling homesick this fall—and that she will lean on others for social support—including faculty, advisors, roommates, and new acquaintances.
And this advice benefits me, too. I’m quite forlorn as a remote worker still longing for COVID to disappear. If you’re like me, you’ve also invested years of your social life into parenting. Perhaps some of your old parent friends are now gone, and you are craving new friendships.
We know that social support bolsters us and contributes to greater resilience, yet pandemic loneliness and a sense of psychological inertia weigh on many of us. Dr. Vivek Murphy addresses this in his book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, calling on us to reassess our relationships at this time in our history. We have the opportunity to “step back and take stock of our relationships and ask ourselves, What role do we want people to play in our lives?”
For me, reaching out doesn’t come naturally, especially after a few years of cave dwelling. Yet I do take time to schedule Zoom dates with old friends and colleagues, and I’m even looking for new friendships on social media (e.g., Bumble BFF). Of course, I’m also weary of online connections, so I’m actively considering face-to-face courses, book clubs, or common causes to share with like-minded folks in my neighborhood.
I want to make new friends and pursue new experiences—just like my daughter.
2. Explore and savor
Young adults with the privilege of attending college have so many incredible opportunities for identity exploration. In light of COVID, I want my teen to feel absolute freedom to consider a range of majors, to try out new hobbies and skills, and to experience the pandemic-prohibited extracurricular activities she missed out on while attending most of high school from her bedroom.
Why not wish the same for myself? If I’m reaching out to find more social support again, then I could also take up photography, or actually sit down at the keyboard my partner bought me over the holidays (after a 35-year hiatus from piano playing). It’s time to re-engage my creative soul in new and different ways.
With exploration come opportunities for savoring, a way to slow down and take in positive emotions and experiences. When we savor, we aren’t only feeling pleasure, but also acknowledging that pleasure and extending our enjoyment of that moment.
I hope that my daughter can feel the vividness of things this fall: the smell of freshly ground coffee at a nearby cafe, the exuberance of a victory dance after she passes that test, her own laughter ringing through her dorm halls with new friends. I still look back on my second year of college as the most vibrant, most resonant, most alive to the world. It wasn’t easy, but it was filled with art, travel, and life-changing friendships.
In middle age, I’m trying to recreate some of that aliveness. I’m capturing flowers, plants, and trees on my iPhone, pausing in the stillness of my morning walks to honor their fragile beauty. I’m savoring art (film, books, paintings) more than usual, too. Even music feels different to me lately—more resonant and vibrant. When I’m present to these moments, I soften and become more alive to myself, too.
It’s good to be in the moment, but you can also explore and savor memories, by yourself and with your soon-departing kids. When my daughter turned 18 last week, we pulled out a file of her homemade cards and stories, as well as a journal I kept during her first year. Together, we travelled back in time as she read aloud. We sat tucked in together on the couch—shoulder-to-shoulder—reveling in our shared history.
3. Go gently
I also want my daughter to become more present to the world and herself. As she navigates this huge shift in her life, my greatest wish is that she will be kind to herself—that she will practice self-compassion. In other words, she’ll learn to hold with the tough times (mindfulness), understand that she’s not alone (common humanity), and give herself the care and kindness she needs (e.g., a hug or a reassuring word: “You can get through this!”).
“Self-compassion allows us to ‘be’ with ourselves tenderly (yin) but also to take action (yang), so that we can support ourselves and thrive,” says researcher Kristin Neff. “Yang self-compassion motivates us to keep going.”
Of course, we parents and caregivers deserve just as much self-compassion as our kids do. If we can be curious and present to the life around us (i.e., through mindfulness and savoring), we can also be more present to ourselves—and able to hold our grief gently.
It also helps to know that others “get it” and are going through this same disconcerting limbo phase themselves. The other day I hopped on a work Zoom call with a new colleague. As we introduced ourselves, the emotional tone shifted as soon as we shared our common circumstance. (Her son is off to college this fall, too.) An immediate mama bond emerged through the Zoom ether. Acknowledgment of our “common humanity” can free us to go easier on ourselves. I’m not alone in this [deep sigh]. She feels just as angsty as I do.
This impending loss also compels me to re-examine my modus operandi. I tend to look outward for assurance of my worth. I have also steered away from caring for myself by channeling my compassion to others (my family, friends, students, and colleagues). And now, here I am, facing myself again—equally deserving of my own care and kindness. I’m beginning to listen to my own advice by taking more time for me (more mindfulness practice, time in nature, and journaling).
4. Consider your “why”
With big transitions come larger questions: Who am I and who do I want to be? What can I contribute to this world? Researchers like William Damon study how college students learn to find sense of a purpose in their lives, yet these questions are just as relevant to older adults.
As a parent, I’m struggling to find meaning and purpose right now because so much of me identifies as mom and caretaker. Who am I if not the one tending, listening, tracking, helping, guiding? What is my worth if I’m no longer needed or useful to those I love?
Despite the emptiness I have been feeling, I have an opportunity to reconsider what really matters to me, in my gut. In his book A Hidden Wholeness, educational philosopher Parker Palmer asks us to consider the relationship between who we are and what we do. He poses the question, “How can I make more life-giving choices about what to put into the world and how to deal with what the world sends back—choices that might bring new life to me, to others, and to the world we share?”
I want to reach out, savor, and explore and be kinder to myself in this next stage of life. As my youngest leaves home, I also feel emboldened to expand my mama lens. I feel ready to transform my years of mom care into a broader, fiercer compassion on behalf of other children and families. I’m supporting organizations like Moms Demand Action, Together Rising, Planned Parenthood while considering how to play a more active role in local community centers, foster care organizations, shelters, and food banks. I’m on the right track, according to studies revealing how volunteering benefits older adults, helping us to find greater meaning in life.
As my last child ventures into this privileged stage of exploration called emerging adulthood, I have an opportunity to re-emerge myself. At such points, our feelings combine bitter and sweet for a reason, argues Susan Cain in her recent book, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole.
“Bittersweet feelings create momentum for change and help us find our purpose, because they point us toward inner truths about our lives and what matters most to us,” writes Cain. “If we lean into our sense of longing and sorrow, we can better assess what’s wrong with our current lives and access our deepest passions.”
As my daughter prepares for her college adventure, I am reminding myself that I, too, deserve opportunities for growth—deepening social connections, a rich exploration of life’s offerings, more poignant moments to savor what is, and a new sense of who I can be in the world.