Empty Nest? Child off to School?

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(Rewrite of a 2018 post. My children are now university graduates. My daughter is married.)

I'm keenly aware this time of year there are many midlife moms who've just sent their children off to college or university. I know there are women experiencing new feelings for the first time. 

One blog post can't possibly list all the emotions a nest-emptying mom might feel. Bear with me. 

If you're in this position, you might feel grief. You might also feel relief. You might wallow between the two. Some days the grief comes in a passing thought. Other days it is profound. 

Midlife Empty Nest Grief 

Let me address this idea of empty nest grief for a moment. First, it's okay to feel the feelings of grief. It's necessary if you're to move forward. 

As a mom with children living at school, I had my own tearful moments. I remember missing my children as they were when they were young. It's like the little three to ten-year-olds vanished. I might have spent a full day crying over that idea. 

Another day, I realized my grief was also over my own role changing. I had loved being a fulltime mom (though I worked from home) and felt that role being ripped away. 

My Dark Hour

One Christmas, when the children had returned to their student housing, I was left to put away Christmas tree decorations alone. As I did, my emotions plunged. I wept over memories of Christmases past. I felt like life as we'd known it had forever died. It's an awful feeling. I don't wish it on any woman. 

While I know there is a purpose in letting yourself feel what you must, I now recognize how much better it is to manage this tendency. Maybe I've walked through it enough or matured, but I now retrain my thoughts on the present not the past. 

Feel the Feelings

As I've said, it's okay to feel the feelings. It's okay to express them to a trusted friend or your spouse too. It's okay to journal about them. But I also suggest, after a time, you change the topic. 

You can change your thoughts. Staying in grief is not the ideal. If we don't change our thoughts, we may end up depressed. We stop the momentum of God in our life. 


Let's backtrack for a moment. If you dwell too much on the sad thoughts of letting your child go, the end of your mom role, or recalling them as babies, you might get stuck in a downward spiral. What you focus on is sure to intensify.  

These thoughts can be paralyzing standing in the way of you recognizing what might be next. 

In this spiral, you might feel unable to see any new dreams ahead of you. You might not be able to put your finger on one new thing to get excited about. That feels very troubling. I know. I've had moments like that.  

If you feel this way, let me assure you, this is a passing phase. It's something to walk through. 

In time, with the right help, you will feel a sense of purpose again. It might take practice to change your thought-channel, but you can do it.

Go on a Purpose Hunt 

I suggest in these vulnerable days, you go on a purpose hunt. 

That Christmas when I was desperately overcome with emotion, I picked up a winter magazine and flipped through it. There in the pages of this local home goods magazine were sparkly Christmas decorations. The beautiful designs and bright colours drew me in with excitement. In that moment, I discovered I needed to experience more beauty in my life if I were to feel whole and joyful again. I'd need to be intentional about stopping by jewelry counters or visiting gardens. 

I'm not sure exactly how to describe this epiphany, but I knew looking at beautiful things--whether a bouquet of flowers, an art piece, a photograph, or a sparkly necklace--made me gasp with delight. It was that delight I needed more of in my life and so I pursued such opportunities.

This epiphany was the seed that led to my writing the book, Identify Your Top Five Essential Passions and Identify What's Next in Midlife available on Amazon.

Why so Many Mixed Feelings?

Let me also touch on another aspect of the empty nest phase you're in. 

Your children will likely return home for weekends and special holidays. Though you might have just started to feel good about the empty nest for the first time, the child's return flings you back into your role as mom. You fall into it while they push you into it. 

I remember feeling like an independent woman again for a time. I could walk naked through my home if I wanted. My husband and I pared down our meals. When the children returned, we had to cover up again. The children expected meals. They talked about things I didn't care for. My daughter took over the TV and my son sat endlessly in front of his gaming computer. My new-found peace dissipated and was replaced with mom-worry again.  

With this happening frequently, I was forced to feel my role flip-flopping. 

Jealousy and Other Unnatural Emotions

Another scenario is your child might shock you by saying he or she wants to spend special holidays, birthdays, and the like, elsewhere with friends. They may take off on a long-distance trip (leaving you to wonder how they're paying for it). 

Or worse, your child says they're spending the holidays with their new boyfriend's family.

When that happens, you might feel rejected and jealous. You sense your child pulling away. You fear their boyfriend and his family are being a bad influence. 

You now have an inkling everything is changing. 

It's your choice to either be flexible or let your emotions demolish you. I suggest you try to be flexible. 

A Truth You Might Want to Know

Every parent wants their child to make new friends and thrive. My son is an introvert so his experience was much different than my daughter's. 

My daughter is a social butterfly. During her years at university, she had more friends than I ever thought possible. 

I saw a video that encapsulated my daughter's relationship with her new friends--friends I didn't know. 

Seeing the video and noting how many photos she had on Facebook of her with people I didn't know (like I did when she was younger) provided me with a much-needed wakeup call. I saw that she had moved on with her life, apart from me. And that made me a little sad. I felt left out. Reality hit that I would not be her best friend. I felt old and replaced.

My Reality 

You see, I'd conjured a story that my daughter was but away at school--studying. In my story, she would graduate and return home and life would resume as it once was. 

But that story was pure fiction. 

While she was living on campus for five years, she had built a new life. Life at home with mom and dad no longer fit her identity. She graduated and chose a job out of town. There would be no return home. Then, two years later, she got married. 


It's funny how I was so late in grasping that she had moved on and I had not.  

The thing is when she did return home for an overnight, she seemed to validate my story. Each weekend visit, I had been flung back into mothering mode. And I always returned her to her dorm with a load of groceries. 

I didn't hear the alarm bell, the one that suggested it was time for me to move forward with my own life. 

I have now taken more steps and learned it is much harder for a mom to recreate her life than it is for a young student to recreate hers. My moving on in the empty nest would take much longer.  

Letting Go

The above is a picture of the process of letting go. See my blog post about such here.  

A common life coaching question I will ask you know as you read is this: 

What is it time to let go of? What is it time to shed?

What to Do

I have a relationship with God that is like breathing. We talk to each other all day. I asked him what he wanted me to let go of. 

I sensed him say that he was having me shed all that was related to me being a mother raising children. 

He pointed out a few things that meant. One was worry about my kids. Another was wanting to control my kids. A third was a desire or propensity to step into my children's lives as I used to. 

It took constant reminders to myself to stay out of their issues, and to let them figure things out for themselves. 

The Shedding Process 

A counselor I worked with gave me a suggestion to let my university-aged son be in charge of his own schedule when he would return home for a weekend. She said to stop getting upset when I'd find him still up at 3 am. 

Once I practiced ignoring his choices, I felt great relief for myself. He wasn't doing anything wrong or dangerous. He was just playing late computer games that annoyed me. So I learned to shed my annoyance.

He came home to live again after he graduated and this fall (2019) left again to take a grad certificate course out of town. He may return, and he may never return. The future is up to God who we've entrusted him to. 

The shedding process is one that helps us become independent again. I don't know what life is supposed to look like going forward, but I do know a few areas I'm to shed now. I trust God will work out his plan for my kids and for me, and I suspect that will be one day at a time. 

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