The month-long college Christmas break that ended in late January allowed my wife and me to escape our empty nest reality briefly, and it gave us a glimpse of the way things were and will likely never be again
We obviously enjoy having our college-age children around, but since that’s not an option, we’ve adjusted to, and even embraced, the selfishness of the empty nest.
For more than two decades, as we planned our days, my wife and I factored in our kids’ activities. In the early years, parenting required near constant effort. That effort waned considerably, as we progressed from cribs and diapers to high school jobs and activities. Still, like all parents, even as they grew into young adults, we tried to be aware of where our kids were and what they were doing. We also tried to prioritize time together, like family dinners and church.
All of that changed last fall, when our youngest left for college. We now have a vague idea of where they are and what they’re doing, but without the daily updates, it’s futile to try to keep up, and we shouldn’t. We got them this far. The rest of their journey is their responsibility.
To allow ourselves to step aside, we needed to learn to embrace the selfishness of the empty nest, which can be a challenging adjustment after so many years of active parenting. When they live with us, our children’s needs almost always come ahead of our own. Over time, selflessness becomes natural. Then, ironically, when it’s time for them to leave, we selfishly want to keep them around when we need to let them go.
When my son left for college nearly three years ago, the family dynamic changed, but our identity didn’t; we were still parents with a kid at home. We missed him, but our active teenage daughter kept parenting among our daily duties. Though she rarely challenged our parenting skills, her presence in the house reminded us that we were indeed parents. When she left last fall, the change was abrupt.
I remember waking up the next morning, a Sunday, with no one in the house who needed to update us on her plans for the day. We didn’t need to worry about when she came home the night before, nor when she needed to wake up that day. We no longer factored in her plans, nor she in ours.
In addition to the silence and reduced responsibilities, there are reminders of our empty nest throughout the house. The dry-erase calendar on the fridge looks barren now, with only our activities. The laundry piles are smaller, and the grocery bags lighter. I can no longer get away with the trick of leaving a dish in the sink and having it reappear in the dishwasher before my wife gets home.
It would be easy to get depressed about our new reality, but like all life changes, things are a lot easier if we learn how to capitalize on the positives and minimize the negatives. Instead of sulking about missing them, my wife and I reminisce about their successes and the good times we’ve shared as a family. We’ve also learned to capitalize on the spontaneity of the empty nest. It’s now much easier change dinner plans according to our whims, and if we go out to eat, the tab is half as much. Perhaps best of all, it’s now easier to prioritize our relationship and enjoy the time together.
Sure, we’ll always miss them, but it’s a lot easier when we embrace the selfishness of the empty nest.
“To raise a child comfortable enough to leave you means that you have done your job. They are not ours to keep but to teach them to learn to soar on their own.” – Anonymous