I have a midlife friend who recently saw her youngest child off to university. From her flurry of social media posts around commencement of the school year, it was clear she was having a hard time with this significant milestone in her and her daughter’s life. It made me reflect on my own experiences with seeing my daughters heading off to university.
For me, it has been more than five years since my youngest had started university. Like my other two, she went to university in another city at least a couple of hours drive away from home. So visits would not be frequent.
Interestingly, it was actually my middle daughter’s move that had the most emotional impact for me. Perhaps because she had the toughest time getting through high school and the teenage years. In fact, there had been times when we had wondered if she would finish high school at all. That she did graduate high school and had gone on to university was something for us to be pleased and proud of. Hence, I was completely unprepared for the emotional impact.
The weeks before her move to university were busy and exciting times, filled with ensuring paperwork was completed, tuition and student loans arranged, finding an apartment in an unknown city, planning the move, purchasing necessities for school and apartment, and so on. The overall mood was positive as we prepared for this significant and important step forward in our child’s life. Even the day of the move I didn’t have time or inclination to ponder any deeper meaning in this event beyond it being a great step for my child and wanting to do anything I could to support her through it.
It was about a 4 hour drive to my daughter’s university so the day of the move had to begin early. The logistics of picking up a rented moving van, packing it, driving to her new city, unpacking and setting up her new apartment and then driving back and dropping off the van, required an early start and no time wasted. It was just rush, rush, rush. And again, it was all exciting positive stuff. Meeting her room-mates, figuring out how to combine their stuff in common rooms, finding the local bank and best walking routes to her classes, etc. So when finally the moment came to hug her, walk down the driveway and climb into the van for the drive home, I was unprepared for the punch-in-the-gut emotional wallop that struck me as I looked up at her waving goodbye from the porch. Both of us had tears in our eyes, and I know for me the tears continued for a while as I headed up the freeway on the long, lonely drive home. But why? This was all good! She had graduated high school and got into a university program in a field she was interested in, an eventuality that seemed like a long shot just a couple of years before. What was there to be sad about?
Well, of course, it’s because it signifies that she is moving on from you. She has taken that first huge step to not needing you any more. Yes, she’ll still love you and appreciate your support. But she is no longer completely dependent on you. She’s no longer your little girl. She is an adult and there can be no clearer sign of it than moving out on her own and starting to make her own life. I can see that now, although at the time I could not have articulated any of that. Even now, as I think back on that day, my eyes are getting moist.
As I said, I had two other daughters with whom I went through this same process but while I experienced the same emotional impact each time, it was not of the same degree. Why not? I think because the oldest one had been very independent for some time before she went to university. She was already tough and strong and in fact had been quite a handful through her high school years. Perhaps there was some relief that she was past that stage. Probably, there was also a certain deep understanding that she would be fine – in fact would thrive in this milieu, enjoying the independence for which she’d been hungry for some time. For the youngest one, things were somewhere in between the other two. She was strong and independent like the eldest , but not the handful. And also, I think, like just about every stage in her growing up, we’d been through it already with the other two and so were perhaps ready for what was entailed. Also, as I had already been separated from their mother through all this, there was no coming home and staring at each other across the now-quiet rooms of the family home that intact couples experienced. I’d already been dealing with being alone for a few years as the girls had lived with their mother.
But it’s important to note that it’s only with the passage of time that I can put some reflection on these emotional impacts. At the time, it’s just a hollow emptiness that you can’t explain. And so, I sympathize with my friend who is now going through this. In her case, she is also a single parent but had the daughter living with her. So she is going through this as well as coming to grips with living completely alone for the first time, I think. In addition – as if she needed anything more – she lost a good friend to cancer at about the same time as her daughter heading off to university. So she’s got a lot on her plate.
But what concerns me is that instead of leaning on her friends for support, she seems to be pulling back, out of contact. My offers to be a sounding board have been rebuffed, she has withdrawn from social media after being a regular poster. Her few posts have had somewhat ominous references to making big changes in her life like moving overseas. I don’t think she is dealing with this well.
So what is the right way to deal with empty nester syndrome? I think getting out and being active is number one. Just like for other difficult periods in middle age – and with any depression – being social and getting exercise are great coping tools. Start to do all those things you haven’t been able to do while running around being a parent. Take up new hobbies, join new groups, go away for mini vacations (or maxi-vacations if you’re in a position to). But don’t make any rash, life-altering changes at this point. The initial empty nest syndrome is largely a grieving process – grieving for the end of the life you have had with your children, who are no longer “children”. So accept your feelings. It is natural and getting through it is a process. But dwelling on negative feelings – and especially withdrawing from life, which will only give you more time to dwell on them – is not helpful. Remind yourself of the positives. This is a great step for your child! You’ve done a great job getting them here. And now, you have time to finally do all those things you’ve wanted to do!
For more suggestions, here is a good article about how to deal with Empty Nest Syndrome as a single parent (but is just as helpful for couples), and here is a brief overview and suggestions from the Mayo Clinic.