Parenting advice

A shaky child on a bicycle for the first time needs both support and freedom. The realization that this is what the child will always need can hit hard.” ~Sloan Wilson

Note: This essay was published earlier this year (“A New Season of Parenting”) in Metro Parent magazine. It was written especially for friends whose children will be starting college this fall…

It’s going to be a roller coaster year for a friend whose youngest child will graduate from high school in May, then head out of state to college in August. My friend is already working through some conflicting emotions. She gets a little teary at the thought of one less place setting at the family dinner table, yet she’s thrilled about the prospect of a keeping neater house (and gaining a spare bedroom) in the fall.

My son’s last year in high school was a bittersweet time for me, too. Like Janus, the ancient Roman god of gateways, beginnings, and endings, I found myself looking forward and backward as my son closed the door on high school and prepared for his new life at college.

When I wasn’t caught up in the May-June whirlwind of award banquets and graduation ceremonies, I spent a lot of time wondering where his childhood had flown. When no one else was looking, I’d search for it in a family album crammed with precious photos of birthday parties, Fourth of July bike parades, Cub Scout camps, Christmas mornings, and Halloween nights.

Around that time, it also hit me that one of the sweetest gifts of midlife is the maternal amnesia that blurs the other memories of infancy and childhood — the post-partum blues; the exploding diapers; the marathon temper tantrums. Not to mention those snarky adolescent insults. When our kids prepare to leave home for college, after all, we tend to focus on the Hallmark moments.

All of this reminiscing seems a bit maudlin to me now. But revisiting the highlights of my son’s childhood helped soothe my empty-nest blues. Pausing to savor and reflect on my early years of motherhood made it easier for me to move on. It also made me grateful for the privilege of raising a child — and grateful for the chance to spend time with so many terrific young people.

During the high school years, for example, our home was a favorite gathering place for my son’s friends, so I always stocked up on extra snacks and soft drinks. Looking in our refrigerator in those days, you wouldn’t have guessed that we were a small family of three. When I unloaded my grocery cart in the checkout line, clerks would often ask if I was feeding a very large family or hosting a party. I always answered yes to both questions.

And since my “extended family” left for college when my son did, my feelings of loss encompassed more than one child.

Taking flight, moving on

Grieving isn’t unusual in the early weeks of empty nesting. Raising children gives us a sense of mooring and purpose. That sense of mooring suddenly disappears when they move out, and getting used to a quieter household can be a huge adjustment. As essayist Marion Winik wrote, “Once you’re a mother you can never think something else is the most important thing.” Still, few parents I know are comfortable with the term “empty nest.” An empty nest sounds pathetic and forlorn  — adjectives that hardly fit the millions of accomplished women and men who are reinventing their lives after child-rearing.

“A word signifying a void or a vacuum is an unfair way to describe a time when life can be full of growth possibilities,” note Laura Kastner and Jennifer Wyatt in The Launching Years: Strategies for Parenting from Senior Year to College Life (Three Rivers Press). But even more important than finding a new catchphrase for the empty nest is shifting our focus to the fresh opportunities awaiting our kids on the other side of the threshold.

Our job, after all, is to help them learn how to leave us; to let go.

It’s also our job to get on with our own lives. Just as we hope our kids will thrive without our constant supervision, they need to believe we’ll be just fine, too. In the long run, helicopter parenting doesn’t do anyone any good.

So, even if your kids aren’t leaving home this year, it’s not too early to sign up for those ballet lessons you’ve postponed for ages. Or to rediscover the sport or the craft that kept you juiced up and inspired before your name was Mom. Pat yourself on the back for a job well done. A new season of parenting will unfold. — Cindy La Ferle

— Nest photo by Cindy La Ferle —

13 thoughts on “Parenting advice

  1. Cindy,

    I enjoyed this piece when it was in the Metro Parent magazine. However, today while rereading it gave me a pause… I just signed up for something new and had an exciting art adventure yesterday. Thanks for the encouragement!

  2. Cindy,
    My own empty nest “syndrome” was a bit different. The first year my last child was out and off to college I felt such intense freedom and joy, I just can’t tell you! Then, one year later it hit and I began to feel quite melancholy at times they she wasn’t around. (Though I did love the clean bedroom!) I agree that allowing others to leave is a process of getting ready and letting go. And our journey of letting go with gentleness-to-self is gradual too. Thanks for this lovely reminder…

  3. I appreciate reading about other empty nest experiences. Angie, I know you’re fully enjoying your time with your kids — and you know their childhoods will fly quickly. It’s a cliche, but it’s true.

    Jan, I agree that our transitions hit us at different times, for different reasons. I’m sure you’re not alone when you note that the empty nest didn’t seem so “empty” until later.

    I truly enjoyed having kids around (my sons friends included), yet I was still surprised at how much I missed the noise and the activity around the house after they all left for college. In retrospect, I realize too that my career as a “work at home mom” included writing a weekly column (as well as magazine articles) on home and family topics. In other words, writing about parenting, generally and personally, was tightly woven together with my role as a mother. That changed, too, as my son matured and left home.

  4. My children are still so little (the youngest is 4 months old) but I know I’ll be experiencing the roller coaster of emotions you describe here when they are ready to fly the coop. That said, I sometimes fantasize about sending the oldest to boarding school. Just being honest… Hope you don’t think I’m a bad parent…

    • Jennifer, I wish you could see me smiling as I type this …
      I don’t think you’re a bad parent at all — you’re a very good one! During my early parenting years, I recall moments of frustration and fantasies of wishing I could find that proverbial room of my own … somewhere far away 🙂 Like I said, “maternal amnesia” eventually takes over and we recall mostly the happy, fulfilling times of motherhood. And there are many more of those to come for you!

  5. Hi Cindy, No kids here but I will pass this advice onto my sisters who are struggling with their empty nests.

    And, I just found the current issue of “Victoria” magazine with your wonderful article! CONGRATULATIONS on a job well done. It’s a terrific full page article (!) that hit home for this 50-something in need of a change and who’s back yard is being torn apart as I type. Maybe a new garden is in my future too. Thanks for the suggestion.

    Hope your week is going well.

  6. Reading this, I realized that I had my empty nest experience early because of a nasty divorce. I still had my children, some of the time, but that first few months of not having them under my roof every single night was the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through.

  7. Oh my gosh.

    Thank you for bringing me here. And for that nest photo — it could be on the cover of Dangerous Neighbors. It’s gorgeous!

    I’m gratified that you found me.

  8. That quote sure nails it.
    As does your article. Your keen and gentle truth of it.
    You know, I wonder about the years ahead. Many graduates are spending a year or more back at home saving for a condo etc . It makes me think that we will be a long time at this . I’m okay with how ever it plays out really. My children are independent and attached. My husband and I have always carved out little niches of our own, of our together.
    Fingers crossed for the river to keep flowing along washing us in peace.

  9. Beth — I’m honored that you’ve visited — and I hope my readers will treat themselves to a visit to your site and one of your many wonderful books!

    Deb and Jenn, I’m glad you enjoyed the quote and the essay. Deb, you’re right about recent grads coming back to the nest after college…I know many who’ve done this, although my son moved to Chicago and a new job right out of college. That aside, from all I’ve learned in your posts over the past year, I am willing to bet you’ll go through the next phase without much trouble. You’re a wonderful, loving mom!

  10. oh this is so nice to read about, I am still in the trenches of young motherhood, but I am straining to keep my head above the fray, to do something for myself, so when they are gone (sniff) I will not be empty! good to be reminded to stay the course.

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