Empty nest, now what?

Empty nest, now what?

After more than two decades, I’ve reached a new parenting milestone.

Kimberly French
illustration of a couple silhouetted and filled with blue skies, their shadows are of 3 children. Illustrating empty nest.

© brian stauffer/theispot.com

© brian stauffer/theispot.com


Last fall I helped move my younger daughter into her freshman dorm in one of the two big cities in our state. Not long after, I helped move my older daughter into a cooperative house in the other big city, where she was starting her first job after college graduation.

The nest is now empty. More than two decades of parenting—the job I’ve done for the longest, and with the most intensity—is coming to a close. Friends and relatives ask me, “How are you?” and say, “They’re so grown-up. The time sure flew by, didn’t it?”

Actually, I feel I have been present for every minute. And that feels good. One of my favorite editors, after I told her when my first daughter was a baby that I’d be cutting back on my writing, sagely observed: “You never regret the time you spend with your kids.”

Many women of my generation had entirely different expectations for our lives from the ones our own mothers had. The possibility of having both a career and children was freeing and overwhelming. We experimented, sometimes blindly—figuring out how to fit together meaningful work, an equitable division of household labor, and the slog and joys of raising young humans into responsible adults, all without going out of our minds.

So how am I doing? Much like the first days of falling in love with my infant, my senses seem heightened. I’m overcome with love and pride for my daughters. I’ve reconnected with old friends and treated myself to little pilgrimages to beaches, islands, and forests I’ve always wanted to visit. Best of all, and what I looked forward to most, are uninterrupted talks and time with Michael, my husband.

Then, every so many days, there’s a dip into melancholy and missing my daughters. Oddly, passing by the school or the cross country team running on the road doesn’t trigger these feelings the way it does for Michael. I get walloped, though, when I see that the café has made pistachio muffins, and I know the person who loves them is gone.

I’m still new to empty nestdom. Most of my friends have already settled in. So I asked them: “How has it been for you? What eased this transition?”

What I found was that just as with every other stage of parenting, everyone experiences the transition out of child raising differently. Some are giddy, some grieving. Some are nostalgic. Some seize the moment and look forward. A new friend, Susan, said her kids tease that she doesn’t miss them at all. She’s thrown herself into a new career as an interfaith chaplain by day and performs with a singing partner by night. Another friend confided—tearfully, even now a decade later—that she couldn’t get out of bed for two weeks when her daughter was preparing to leave for college.

Several friends noticed they went through stages. First, sweet relief. Relief from decades of picking up wet towels from the wood floor, answering to “What’s for dinner?” night after night, and crisscrossing town as a chauffeur. Relief from surly teenagers who don’t want to be around you, and the final mounting pressure cooker of college applications, essays, and aid forms.

Sadness often came later. Cindy was doing pretty well after her daughter left for college, busy with her own life. But the following year a friend gently suggested that maybe the fatigue she was feeling was actually grieving and low-level depression. “I took myself in hand,” she said, “shut all the windows, and forced myself to grieve, loudly, vociferously. I beat my chest and tore my hair. It made a difference.”

Renée also went through relief, then sadness, and now that her son’s a college junior, they’re in “a lovely phase of exploration into a new adult relationship.” He’s nice again. And he’s initiated a Sunday night call, not just to say, “Can you send my phone charger?” but to ask how his parents are and what they’re doing.

Some parents and fledgling offspring have found they’re closer than ever, even when children are oceans away, thanks to texting, video chats, and social media. Dakota told me she had more meaningful, in-depth conversations when her daughter was in China, with a weekly video chat, than if she had been sitting across the dining table. Her other daughter texts her more, and shares more, than she did as an adolescent at home, when she tried to hide her real self from her parents.

A month into college, my younger daughter texted me: “Today I set up a doctor’s appointment myself, called & paid for a cab, and now I’m on a train. I’m a freaking adult!” I laughed. And I was as happy for her as when she wobbled off on her bike for the first time.

My friend Joy put it well: “If you’re really doing your job right as a parent, you’re raising these people, who are part of you, to not need you. That’s just heartbreaking. It’s simultaneously inspiring in a way.”

Some parents lean into nostalgia, missing those baby or little-kid years or remarking on the “last family vacation” or “the last holiday all together.” Some find themselves at this juncture staring down the road into old age. For essayist Holly Robinson, the college drop-off moment made her think about how quickly the next twenty years will go—“most of us will be gone, or we’ll be husks of our former selves.” Of course, that could happen tomorrow, too.

I always loved the way my friend Suzi talked about parenting: “My favorite stage was always the one we were in.” I want to find the joy and promise in this stage, too. My hope is that I can stay present in every moment. When the sad moments come, I will pay attention, and be grateful for wise friends who have already learned how to turn emptiness into fullness.

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