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Your Child is Off to College: What About You? Confronting the Empty Nest

emptynestCongratulations – your youngest is off to college! You’ve spent months (really years), planning for this day, anticipating the loss along with the freedom. In many ways, it is a sign of a job well done. So why does it feel so….empty? And how do you get through this period of transition, when your “new normal” doesn’t quite feel normal yet?

It is sometimes said that raising a child is the only job that you eventually get fired from if you do it right. And it can certainly feel like that. It’s so strange after all those years not to think about your child’s schedule or dinner plans, or any of the other things that come with day to day parenting, even if he or she has been fairly independent during the last year or two at home.

So, for starters, be ready for some strong emotions. You may feel absolute happiness one minute (that doesn’t mean you don’t love your children) and bone crushing grief the next. You may feel a quiet sadness, or tremendous anxiety. Is your child going to be ok? Are you? It’s all normal – in fact, you may feel different feelings on different days, or hour by hour. Give yourself the space to be with it all. The answer is most likely yes, you and your child will both be ok, but it is a huge transition, and one to be honored and respected.

Some suggestions:

Plan a few days away after you say good bye at the dorm. This can help ease the transition between school drop-off and your newly quiet house. It can also give you a chance to reconnect with your spouse, with friends, or with yourself, before “life” begins again. If a full trip isn’t in the cards, planning some fun days/evenings in the months to come can help too – concerts, day trips and other things you might not have done easily when there was a teenager still at home.

If you are married, plan projects and activities together. When the two of you are working towards something, not to mention spending the time away from soccer games and college visits, it helps you reconnect as actual human beings and not just parents, which can feel refreshing.

If you truly miss and love the structure of caring for someone/thing on a day to day basis, consider a puppy! There is something genuinely lovely about coming home to a creature that loves you unconditionally and is always up for a cuddle – not to mention that they never roll their eyes, borrow the car, or come home at 2 am. But one word of caution: wait a few months to adopt one – you may relish your newfound freedom more than you expect!

In fact, hesitating a bit before making any big new change is not a bad idea. You may have the urge to dive into a totally new lifestyle – sell the house, travel the world, etc. But wait, settle in. Give yourself time to make thoughtful decisions.

In the meantime, think about ways to spend your time that you enjoy that you may have put on the back burner during all those years of active parenting. Things like hobbies, working late without guilt, meeting friends for a drink after work, taking long weekend hikes, or even going back to school for new certificates or degrees are all possibilities. It can help to make an actual physical list of ideas and start checking them off.

If the idea of spending lots of quality time alone with your spouse fills you more with trepidation than delight – you are NOT alone. After all, it’s been at least 18 years! It may help to know that most couples report that once they settle in, they begin to enjoy each other’s company again, and empty nest marriages often thrive. Of course, there are exceptions, and if you are worried that having kids around helped you avoid some real conflicts, it is ok to meet with a professional to talk things out for a few sessions and see where you are.

And that idea about getting fired…It’s really not true. Parenting doesn’t end once your youngest leaves for college, but it does change. There is still advice and wisdom to be shared, crises big and small to be dealt with, and apartments to be furnished. The challenge now is figuring out how to let go and hold on at the same time, as you transition to parenting a young adult.

stonbergJulie Stonberg is a clinical social worker at Westchester Family Counseling in Hartsdale, www.westchesterfamilycounseling.com. She is the mom of two in college and one still in the nest.

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