Dr. Robin: Celebrating an empty nest (originally published 9/19)

August 30, 2020

A friend of mine put a post on Facebook that hit me right in the primitive core of my maternal gut. The post read: “Crazy how it is the small things that make you pause. I went to set the table for dinner and only set out 3 places.” The impact of this post only makes sense when you know that she and her husband have two daughters and she was referring to the first family dinner after dropping her older daughter off for her freshmen year at college. After 16 years of four place settings after the birth of her second, she was down to three, and the emotion in her simple, 2-line post quickly brought me to the moment when one of my daughters might be waving at me in my rearview mirror…likely as I try to quickly drive away before breaking down in tears.

Why is it, though, that moms see this moment with such sadness? That when we think about it happening in the future, it leaves us glad that it isn’t us having to do that this September. And for those moms who are currently experiencing this situation, that they feel it with a sadness that at best has them dreading the drop off date, and at worst, leaves them bereft back at home, sometimes unable to do much else than think about, worry about and miss their child.

But then I began thinking about everything we moms do for our kids’ in the first 18 years, and it all begins the minute we get the verbal confirmation from the doctor or visual confirmation on a peed-upon stick: most of our days are filled with thoughts about how to best care for this child. We research the best foods to eat during pregnancy, and continue this insanity as we debate the virtues of cow milk versus soy milk versus almond milk, et cetera, through their childhoods. We create multicolored, coded calendars to keep track of every immunization, sport, club, playdate, hair cut, orthodontist, pediatrician, dentist, specialist, driver’s ed appointment. We try to figure out how to meet every need and balance every want. To teach them kindness and manners and how to make at least a few recipes and why thank you notes are important. We invest so much and now this person that we have focused so much on is walking out the door, into the world, and leaving us behind. How can that be okay? And when we try to explain this to our significant others, who did not birth or nurture this child in the same way we did, they try to relate, but can’t. (Keep in mind as my husband proofed this blog post, he got to this point, looked up at me, and for the millionth time, confirmed that if there is reincarnation, there is no way he’s coming back as a mom.)

So, yeah, the focus of our energy, time, attention and love is leaving and it hurts. And the craziest part of this reaction is that the purpose of all that energy, time, attention and love was exactly this moment – to prepare our child to live their life out in the world. Instead of numbing emotion, we should have three cognitive realizations (after we allow ourselves 10 minutes to get the tears out).

First, we did this to ourselves. We did everything we could to make this child into a functional, good, independent adult, and yet we are sad about achieving our exact goal. How ironic is that?

Second, YEA, US! We achieved our goal. It likely didn’t follow a perfectly scripted plan, and certainly had plenty of detours, potholes and unexpected accidents, but here that child is, going off, on their own, as we always wanted for them. While there were plenty of times you likely wondered about your capability as a mom, YOU DID IT! If your kid is existing independently at some level, and in general isn’t a jerk, you deserve a commendation from the Global Parenting Consortium (which really should be a thing).

Third – and this is where your ten minutes of negative emotion needs to be done, hon – have you considered what this departure means…wait for it…for you? I know, I know. This may very well be a foreign concept for you. After the kids, and your spouse, the pets, and the house, and your multiple jobs (inside and possibly outside the home), you may consider yourself for about 5 minutes a day. Maybe the 2 minutes you are waiting outside the school to pick up your child from whatever seasonal sport they’re playing. Then maybe another 1 minute as you are brushing your teeth at night. And then, if you are one of the lucky ones, another 2 minutes between your head hitting the pillow and exhaustion knocking you out. Yes, you’ll miss your kid periodically, but this departure means you have more time. Even if you are shaking your head, saying, “Nope, have another one, or two, or three kids still at home to take care of” (I’m going to stop there because if your household is exceeding 4 kids, you deserve a Nobel Prize in Parenting, not just a commendation), that still means that a percentage of your time is now FREE. One less set of appointments and pick up/drop offs. One less presence to add “to dos” to your always expanding list. One less body to drain you of physical, mental and emotional energy every day. Now before you get all defensive, I am aware that it isn’t like your child has just disappeared from the face of the earth and that we, as moms, will still expend energy on the child, but it isn’t at the same intensity as when that child is in the house.

When you let yourself think about your child’s move out of the house in positive terms – and here’s the important part – without feeling guilty about seeing it as a positive event, you can begin to consider what you’d like to devote that extra energy and time to. Hopefully, it is yourself. Ask yourself what are those things you keep telling yourself you want to do, but never had the time to? Reconnect with friends? Try yoga? Go back to running? Read? Start a job you love, rather than one that worked for your family? Paint? Volunteer at an organization other than your child’s school? Take up hang gliding? Go on more dates (or any dates) with your significant other? You get to decide what to do – for you – with that time.

We are allowed to think of ourselves more than that 5 minutes a day. And doing the first two points mentioned earlier wasn’t just good for your kid, it led to the third, which is good for you. So certainly celebrate the milestone your kid has achieved, but then allow yourself to celebrate all you did to help create that milestone for them, and even more, to create this new milestone for yourself.

And maybe for the first few dinners after the college drop off, go out to dinner.

Just a little something for your own insight. – Dr. Robin