Your child is heading off to college leaving you with an empty nest


Dear Adele,

Our son has successfully graduated from high school and been accepted in the program of his choice at an out-of-town university. While I am proud of him and want only the best for him, I am feeling a pain in my heart thinking about him not being with me. Is this normal?

Empty Nester


Dear Empty Nester,

So, your baby is leaving and it feels like a punch in the gut every time you think about it. Is that about it Empty Nester? Believe me you are not alone.

One of the hardest things to do is to help your child prepare for going away to college. You have been closely attached for approximately 18 years and now your offspring is ready to fly on his own. Few parents can deny the pride they feel at this time, but fewer will reveal to others that they may cry often when he leaves.

Your emotions are likely confused and running strong, right now. You have invested every fiber of your being into parenting your child. You have been proud of every accomplishment. You watched him grow and relished every milestone. You loved your boy to death and have encouraged him to chase his dreams.

 But now the time has come for his departure. It is time to set him free to make his way in life. Your paths this day are parting.

Best to acknowledge your own conflicting feelings. You know that you are worried and anxious about how he will manage the problems of life ahead. At the same time, you are pleased and excited that he is spreading his wings and moving on into adulthood. Understand that it is natural to be simultaneously sad, ecstatic, anxious, excited, upset, and proud.  Fortunately, the grief part should be temporary.

May I suggest that you plan for your boy’s leaving. Try to accept that you will have less time with your beloved offspring, that you will know him a bit less and will share fewer experiences. Arrange to spend non-parent adult time with your teenager before the actual departure day. Use your energy on yourself. Perhaps you could look into a new job or a new approach to the job you have. Develop new interests and new friends. These endeavours will take time which was previously filled with your teenager and will keep you active and busy.

Research shows that the sadness will likely pass. Professor Carin Rubenstein of Pina College studied mothers whose kids went off to college and concluded that “most mothers had a bout of real grief after they dropped their kids at college.” Typically, the grief was alleviated and replaced by happiness within 6 to 9 months. The sadness and discomfort of the departure eventually turned a corner into pride and delight.

It is important to acknowledge the changes that are occurring in your own life. You are saying goodbye to a way of life that was built around the school calendar and your children’s activities. You are saying goodbye to your relationship with your son as you knew it. You are saying goodbye to your old identity as a parent of children. Resist the urge to remain shackled to that role and do not hover. Support your progeny, listen to him, allow him room to grow and let him solve his own problems.

It is time to rebuild your life with the focus on yourself and your partner. You may worry that the quality of your marriage may have changed during the parenting years. You might feel better knowing that Sara Gorchoff of Monmouth College found that “marital satisfaction got better (for mothers) once their kids left.” The typical mother enjoyed her relationship with her partner more because she had an opportunity to have fun and spend relaxing, exciting, uninterrupted times with her significant other.

Do try to stay connected to your offspring in as many ways as possible. You can discuss this in advance with your teenager and arrange texts, group chats, video chats, and virtual dinners. You can send letters and cards, and share phone calls. You can plan visits perhaps at long weekends and holidays. Try not to be intrusive and encourage independence and enjoyment.

An article worth reading on this subject is ‘How to deal when a child heads off to college: a parent’s survival guide’ by Lisa Heffernan.

There’s no question about it that saying goodbye is part of being a parent and that loss is attached to it. This life event is aptly captured in a song by Glen Yarbrough published in 1965, entitled ‘Walk on Little Boy’. I will conclude with the lyrics from this song and hope you take time to listen to it on YouTube. May you find it inspirational.

Walk on Little Boy

Walk on Little Boy, we’ve been too long together.
Don’t cry Little Boy, it’s time I set you free.
Walk on Little Boy, you’ve seen the Change of Weather.
So, walk along, run along, but don’t you wait for me.
Walk on Little Boy, your life has only started.
A world full of joy is there for you to see.
Walk on Little Boy, our paths today have parted.
So, walk along, run along, but don’t you wait for me
The road of life has stretched out far behind me,
With all the friends I’ve known from day to day.
But still I bless the night you came to find me,
to hold my hand, until you learned of the way.
Walk on Little Boy and keep the brave world spinning,
for life is no toy that spins the dreamers free.
Walk on Little Boy your road is just beginning.
So, walk along, run along, move along,
but don’t you wait. Don’t stop to wait.
But don’t you wait for me.

Best to you Empty Nester as you begin a new phase of your life.

Sincerely, Adele

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