Editor’s Note: This piece was planned and written before the coronavirus struck. We recognize that most families have been in quarantine together for months.
I thought I was one of the lucky ones among my friends who could skip the pangs of the empty nest because my daughter, an only child, was commuting to college. It was a 30-minute ride by train from New York City, and we’d see her nights and weekends. At first my husband and I felt guilty that she was missing the dorm experience that both of us had, which can form special, sometimes lifetime relationships with roommates. But even on a full-tuition scholarship, her financial package didn’t cover the “miscellaneous” costs of room and board, which was above our means.
Plus, our mature-beyond-her-years daughter had always been an independent spirit who found it easier to talk to younger kids or adults than to peers. Her friendships were few and fleeting. She sobbed and begged us not to leave when she went to sleepaway camp. Commuting to college was the perfect arrangement. No drop-off drama, no rented SUV filled with sheets, towels, clothes and room decorations. No teary goodbyes and heart-wrenching hugs.
For the first few weeks, we would see her at night, a flash of teenage energy coming home, inhaling dinner and retreating into her room with her laptop to do homework or watch YouTube. She would be gone before I awoke to catch the early morning train upstate and sometimes return after we were asleep. Still, I saw her. I made her dinner. I cleaned up after her and did her laundry. The mother-as-caregiver bond was still unbroken.
Then, about a month or so in, she made friends. Good friends, texting friends, sharing clothes friends, cafeteria friends, gossip friends, sleepover friends. This, of course, is what we always wanted for her. We were elated!
One day I got a text from her saying that she was staying on campus because she had an early class the next day. Great, I thought. Soon, one night turned to two nights, to three, four, and finally the full week. She’d pack her bag on Monday and return on Saturday, sharing a room with her BF in an already crowded dorm. They are young and I recalled how my first college apartment had more roommates than rooms and an open door and open bed policy; boyfriends and random people crashed on our couch and floors, sharing the only bathroom. Somehow, we made it work and we didn’t mind. We had parties with a bathtub filled with ice and beer, and where the police were called by annoyed neighbors complaining (rightfully so) about the noise at 2 a.m.
Although my daughter was not a wild child like I had been, she was enjoying the college experience. All the years of being her “best friend” were behind us. She stopped streaming shows with me, stopped asking for that good night hug, stopped eating dinner with us (“gotta do homework with Sophie”). She yelled at me for being a “helicopter” mom. I felt the reverse gravitational pull away from me so strongly that one night I broke down crying, just as she had done when we left her at camp. I had full-on empty nest syndrome. I knew I had no right to try to hold on to her and I tried to hide my sadness as long as I could, but I finally told her how I felt, unable to hold back my tears. She said, “It’s okay, Mom. It’s just the empty nest. It’s normal. Just go with it. You know I’ll always love you.”
I never doubted her love, I told her, but I missed seeing her, brushing her hair, laughing together. I was losing my best friend and I was the adult in the room! My husband and I reared our daughter so she could live a full life filled with learning, fun and adventure — separate from us. Why was I falling apart at the emotional seams? Some parents with rebellious and sassy kids are relieved when they leave. My relationship with my daughter was unnaturally close. As an only child I was both her mother and sibling. As a lonely child, I was her playmate and source of comfort.
Not only would I not skip the empty nest syndrome that nearly every parent goes through, it turned out that I would feel it more acutely. My daughter texts me regularly, and I’m learning how to share in her happiness instead of mourning her absence. I must be getting better because now I’m the one who often texts: GTG.
Jodie Gould is an award-winning writer and author of 13 books, including the best seller Date Like a Man: To Get the Man You Want and High: 6 Principles for Guilt-Free Pleasure & Escape. Her articles have appeared in Woman’s Day, Family Circle and on Brazenwoman.com