My name is Dana, and I’m a happy empty nester. (My husband and I are in this together, so make that two of us.) This probably doesn’t sound like such a big feat, but for me, it was a long and difficult transition. So read on to learn a little about my journey to acceptance.
Empty nesting, or as my author pal Isabelle Drake, refers to it, “successful parenting,” is that period in life when, after many trial runs and test takeoffs under the guidance of a flight instructor, our young aviators fly off to make lives of their own.
Parents either look forward to that part of life with anticipation or dread its inevitable approach. In the beginning, even though I said I wanted my kids to fly, I dreaded it.
I know it was selfish, but I couldn’t stop myself. You see, for nearly two decades, my work focus had been to help three rambunctious girls develop into decent, responsible adults, and then I was summarily dismissed, not once but three times. (Okay, I did other things during those years, including writing my first sixteen novels, but please indulge my penchant for hyperbole this once.) I felt so obsolete. Discarded. Lost. But beyond that, I grieved for my baby who was no longer a baby and for our family that would never be together in our house in the same way again. Psychologists call this Empty Nest Syndrome, and I was a poster child for it.
My solution to these out-of-control feelings was to help our children prepare for their departures with my endless shopping lists and check-off lists. Let’s just say that the family was lucky to survive my brand of help.
At least the leaving took place in stages, with only one plate at the dinner table vanishing every two years. The first was the hardest. I’m pretty sure I cried through all of Massachusetts and most of New York in 2011 as we returned from leaving our first daughter at her university in Boston.
At home, I sobbed when I looked in her bedroom, and I started up again when I found her ACT scores while going through some papers. I kept forgetting to set only four plates for dinner instead of five. It took all of my inner strength to keep my promise to avoid calling or texting her and to let her control our contact while she was at school.
But life did go on at our house, and by the time our second daughter left in 2013, I had become a little stronger. I only cried for about 30 minutes this time, though, admittedly, her college was only…uh…30 minutes from home.
So then there were only three of us at the table. And, believe it or not, our youngest wasn’t prepared to entertain her parents every minute of the day, so my husband and I were left to our own devices. That was when we rediscovered us. Though we’d spent the past two decades attending soccer games, swim meets, Confirmation services, choir concerts and awards banquets – and we didn’t regret a minute of it – now we had time to do things just for us. We could ride bikes together, go to concerts and go to movies. We had time to remember why we were married and why we’d established this family in the first place. And we found that there were a lot of reasons.
By the time that we delivered our third daughter to college across the state in 2015, I could finally be thrilled for her in her new journey. Sure, I cried again. She is our baby, after all. But I finished quickly, and then we headed off for a fun weekend getaway. There was some strangeness when we arrived home to a really empty house – only two plates this time – but it wasn’t as hard as I’d expected. The girls had been ready for years to be the people we’d raised them to be, and I was finally ready to let them without feeling left behind.
So I really am a happy empty nester now. Happy for the girls and happy for us. Our house might be empty, but our lives are full.