I'm a yo-yo right now, feeling both fine and not fine as I drop my son, our second and final child, off at college. He stood before me recently, sporting the new suit we bought for him to take to college. I suddenly saw what everyone else has been seeing: a grown man. In the same instant I swelled with pride, I also ached. This is really happening.
I've had my eyes wide open about this tender transition, thanks to conversations in past years with girlfriends who've dropped off their youngest at college. They spilled their pain over the phone. I listened closely, a lump in my throat. I wanted to learn from the process. I wanted desperately to believe they would be OK so that when I joined them aboard the empty-nest train, I'd find my way and arrive at “fine,” too.
In so many ways I am completely fine with my freshly emptied nest, largely because of what I learned and the marriage I have. Journaling and recording the dos and don'ts aren't enough: You've got to talk. Instead of burying my anxiety about the approaching empty nest, I raised it with my husband. We went straight to the pain, acknowledging how different it would feel for it to be “just us” after 21 intense years of raising two kids. What was coming was something we'd never experienced before. Of course, we knew it would be unsettling.
Our plan was to practice in advance being just us by seizing any and every opportunity to do things alone and create new experiences not shared by the kids. We wanted to be ready for this transition hurtling toward us. If we worked and planned so hard for our kids to move forward in life, shouldn't we do the same for ourselves?
What happened during these trial runs offered a glimpse into what was coming. We relished the silence, those quiet spaces we'd not enjoyed for years because kid-related concerns filled up the margins. We hit a list of over-21 bars we'd been wanting to try for happy hour, returning home to graze on charcuterie boards. We chalked up many “firsts” such as buzzing around on scooters in Santa Monica, blending in (kind of?) with California's young people.
But the “not-fine” part has been long and dark. So much of my world was wrapped up in mothering. How could it be otherwise? In many ways I don't give a damn, no regrets, because they have turned out to be wonderful, well-adjusted, stable young adults.
I reach out to my friends, and their words help me heal. I said to one girlfriend, “There are mini-earthquakes going on in all the deepest places of my heart.”
She replied: “You can be sure I'm here with you, listening to the dark parts of the struggle. It's just helpful to get it out and have someone listen!”
It's the passing of an era. My friend Jenny, who's also going through this, said, “I've learned to lean into the sadness.” Be kind to yourself. Being sad is OK, she told me.
What's helped on my not-fine days is to channel my sadness so it doesn't own me. I throw myself into a rush of passionate activities, banging out a long letter to the kids and mailing it old school. Or assembling a care package to arrive unannounced composed of weird and serious things, like a unicorn-shaped pen and stress-reducing tea.
I've also learned to carefully choose the air I breathe. I surround myself with friends who stir up the best in me. These friends know and love me. They'll speak honestly but gently to me about my life because I'm fragile. But they are defiantly optimistic and prod me to look up. I leave these conversations counting my blessings, because their insights help me to return to a posture of thanksgiving.
I realize the ache I feel is the flip side of intense love for kids who have brought such joy to my life.
Recently, after a deeply personal chat with my older child, one year from graduating from college, I wrote: “It's great, isn't it. This new way of relating to one another where the ‘playing field’ is even. Woman to woman, not mom to daughter. You're such a good friend to me.” She agreed.
My role in their lives is changed, true. But what I have now is precious. It's an amazing thing to watch your children's life stories unfold, and I cherish my relationship with them as adults. I wouldn't want to go back in time.
Eventually, I'll get through the “fine-not-fine” and answer “grateful” when asked how I'm doing. Though the absence of kids around the house leaves me gutted right now, I sense the opportunities that will unfold in this new season. I can't help but suspect that life with adult kids will be wildly rich and rewarding, just as it was while raising them.
Kathryn Streeter is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in publications including USA Today, the Washington Post and Woman's World. Find her at www.kathrynstreeter.com .