What happens when a single mother becomes an empty nester? I shared what I was experiencing before it happened in a post on May 28, 2009 (Adapting to an Empty Nest and Sharing Parenting Pearls Learned Along the Way). In the post, I described that I might have been feeding a few of my feelings with homemade chocolate cake. Today’s post shares reflections of my first year as an empty nester and a few things I learned about grieving, finding yourself, loving from a distance, and letting your children soar when they leave the nest.
Anyone who knows me knows that my daughter is the most important person in my life. We’re extremely close. I feel so lucky to be her Mom. She is my sun and fills me with meaning and purpose for living. My whole adult life has been spent making decisions around her. (What is the best food she can eat? Do I let her watch TV or do I ban TV? What school is best for her? Which neighborhood is safest for her? What job can I take that provides me with benefits, security and time for her? What can I do to be a good role model? How can I be the best parent ever and not pass on dysfunctions from previous generations…etc., etc.).
You can imagine it was a little painful to see her go – especially when she was moving half a country away. Not so easy to jump in a car and make weekend trips. Consequently, I felt grief and sadness. I also found myself at a loss for what I wanted in life. Sure, it was easy to fantasize and dream about things I could do in the future while living a practical life today that focused on being a good Mom (which admittedly brought me more joy than anything else I could do in life). Yet, now that “someday in the future” was here and I didn’t know what to do. I also felt too sad and numb to just immediately jump on the “pursue your dreams” train.
As a healthy response to this new phase in my life (after all I’m a counseling psychotherapist and surely know the best things to do in these kinds of situations), I decided to commit to doing everything the same for one year. In other words, I wouldn’t make any drastic changes. I’d allow the internal changes to naturally surface instead. I’d give myself time to grieve or do whatever I needed to do. I would not commit to anything that resulted in an external change as it might disrupt my full healing. It takes a baby 10 months to grow in the womb. Surely, it would take some time for me to grow into this new life phase.
It did take time to adjust. I kept focusing on seeing my daughter, planning for our visits, and was pretty certain that I hadn’t been impacted by her departure at all. I felt absolutely fine. Normal. Life hadn’t changed. She and I were just experiencing longer trips away from each other.
Denial. It’s a powerful psychological defense.
She and I were both changing. She was finding friends and learning how to adjust. She was blossoming and coming into her own. Her adjustment appeared smooth. Our first visits with each other involved big hugs and extreme joy followed by bickering followed by tears followed by long talks of processing some of the changes that were taking place. We were still extremely close, yet we were on these new journeys that included diverging paths.
I tried to remain busy. I felt like I was living life as I had when she was home. It wasn’t until five months after she left that I realized I wasn’t cooking like I used to cook (I love to cook, so this was a big deal). I was on the phone with my sister one day when I informed her that I was finally cooking. Then I looked down at the saucepan filled with homemade pasta sauce and realized I had only cooked pasta for the past four months, except this time I was making homemade sauce instead of getting it from a jar.
Those are the kind of realizations that shatter denial like a bullet to a windshield. Tears that wouldn’t come before finally drenched my cheeks. I sobbed and realized life had changed. She wasn’t going to come back and be my little girl that I would get to take care of every day. I had to stand up and take care of me now – and let her be the amazing young adult woman she was becoming.
What I learned
In reality, she and I were both coming into our own. She’s pursuing her passion in school and loving it. I’ve received calls where she excitedly gushes, “Mom, I feel like I was made for this.” There’s nothing that makes a parent feel any better than hearing that kind of enthusiasm from their grown child. In addition, she has inspired me to revisit my own hidden passions and dreams.
One year later, rather than clinging to the days of yesteryear, I am settled into the now. The lessons I’ve learned to date are these:
· Parenthood doesn’t stop, it just changes – and you have to change with it.
· Dreams don’t die, some dreams just get started later in life.
· A critical part of parenting means being the positive support to your children’s passion – the world is full of no’s and negativity, so provide the YES in their lives and be their ray of light.
· Be real, truthful and vulnerable with your children and they’ll be the same way with you.
· Set healthy boundaries that are consistent and firm and you’ll give your children a foundation stronger than the Rock of Gibraltar.
· Love heals all wounds and patience is a necessity.
· Change is part of life – responding to change from the inside results in growth.
· What you eat can reveal a lot abut what what you’re feeling.