Here's how it feels: your child --or your last child, the baby - has gone off to college, gotten married or otherwise left home, and you are struggling with conflicting emotions. On the one hand, you've waited for this day a long time. You've fantasized about it, dreamed about what you would do when you had more time on your hands and more freedom to do whatever you want.
On the other hand, no matter how much you were looking forward to your kids finally leaving, you find yourself missing them more than you thought you would. Some people (especially moms) feel a loss of purpose, and may feel depressed - particularly so if you feel your child doesn't need you anymore. You may also feel you have not adequately prepared your child for life in the real world, or you may feel your child is too young, immature or ill-prepared to be on his/her own.
In the meantime, very few of your friends or family members are sympathetic to you, because they feel that your kids springing from the nest is normal and healthy, and that you just need to get a life and stop moaning about the small things.
Things are even more magnified if you are single, and now, overnight, you are left completely alone. Or if you were a full-time parent, and now you are unemployed. Or if you're in a distant, unstable or unfulfilling relationship, and now you have nothing to distract you from a spouse or domestic partner you are not feeling all that close to. Or just as worse, now you have nothing to hold the two of you together because your marriage has stagnated --or turned cold and distant.
So what does a grown-up do --or someone who is attempting to be a grown-up? The following is designed as a series of suggestions about overcoming the complicated feelings of being an empty nester:
First, you are still a parent, and you can still be there for your child. But do so less, so you're a bit more in the background than the foreground. Your child's task is to physically emancipate, and your task is to let him or her do so with a minimum of guilt and a lot of encouragement. Also, prepare your child. Can s/he cook breakfast? Do laundry? Pay bills on time? Make sure you have prepared him or her as well as you can, so you will worry less. You will also allow yourself to be proud of your child for being a competent young adult - and proud of yourself for being a good parent.
Second, ask yourself: "what else would I like to do?" What else have you wanted to do that you have postponed or put off? Now may be the perfect time to challenge yourself to create a different you. Have you always wanted to write a novel, but were too busy with kids and family? How you dreamt about going back to school to qualify for a new career? Or to learn how to play the guitar, or to re-learn tennis or ice-skating that you gave up years ago? Now would be a great time to develop or expand yourself, or to challenge yourself to create a wish-list and to go after expanding who you are. So create that wish-list and look at what it would take to pursue one or two (or three or four) of your goals.
Third, now is the time to look carefully at your marriage. Or your lack of a relationship - or your lack of a satisfying relationship. Whatever your relationship circumstance is, look at how you could change or improve what you've now got. Could your relationship be improved? How? This would be a perfect time to do so, if your partner is willing. (If your partner is not willing, perhaps this is the right time to look at how you feel about the relationship and what you want to do about it.) If you're not in a relationship, perhaps now is the right time to find one, so you don't feel so isolated or alone.
Fourth, take good care of yourself. Exercise, lose weight, take a dance class, eat healthier, renew old friendships, expand your social circle, try yoga, get a massage, cut down on bad habits, relearn how to romance, practice the art of seduction, learn to meditate. This is the free time you've been dreaming about. Make sure you're taking full advantage of it.
Fifth, there is a real loss, and it requires time for you to mourn or grieve. Allow yourself that time and space. If you plunge into a deeper depression, seek help. Your depression may be about lot's of things, and this is the right time to address them.
Sixth, you can stay in contact with your child, but don't hover, and don't keep your child dependent on you. The mark of an adult is to be able to competently function on your own. Allow your child that feeling of self-confidence, so s/he can be a high-functioning independent, competent young adult. You can still have contact - through phone, email, Skype, texting, care packages and the like. But don't be in touch all the time, or you may send the message that you don't think s/he can make it on his/her own.
Finally, this is your time. Enjoy it, and make good use of it.
Neil Rosenthal is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Westminster and Boulder. His column is in its 20th year of publication, and is syndicated around the world. You can reach him at 303-758-8777, or email him through his website: www.heartrelationships.com.