A combination of denial and distraction all summer shielded me from the reality that my son Baker would be leaving for school soon. Monday afternoon it hit me like a ton of bricks. After a long drive, I turned around to ask Baker and Vivian what they wanted for dinner but before I could say anything I was awash in tears.
There they were brother and sister, peacefully together, in the most ordinary of moments. Baker was asleep with his head nestled next to Vivian's. Schnitzel rested cozily on Vivian's lap, her tail doubling as an eye mask for Baker. Panda, ever the burrower, had wedged herself into the gap between Baker's back and the seat.
All those backseat moments came flooding back—Baker reading Roald Dahl's The Witches to his little sister, the two of them falling asleep with their heads on each other's shoulder, and the vision of them holding hands while buckled into car seats. It wasn't all rainbows and unicorns. There were arguments about music, temperature and, of course, territory. Like all self-governing states, borders mattered. They were always accusing each other of encroaching upon the other's sacred space. Sometimes the land disputes became so intense, I was forced to pull over on the side of the road.
After lamenting to a friend about their annoying fights, she sent me the lyrics to a Trace Adkins song:
All I know is that I am going to miss all of it—the fights, the peace, and just being together in those ordinary moments that, when you think about it, are extraordinary.
How parents navigate these transitions has been on my mind a lot and I was recently invited to discuss Empty Nest Syndrome on the Today Show. While not an official diagnosis, it captures the grief and sadness parents sometimes experience when their children leave home. The anticipatory dread is often worse than the reality.
For most parents, the transition is bittersweet. While they miss their kids, they also report positive experiences. When it comes to emotions, we're taught to consider moods as binary: you're happy or sad, calm or anxious. Ask your friends, "How was your day?" or "How are you?" and they'll probably answer along positive or negative lines. In reality, we can be both. There is value in recognizing that far more nuance exists in emotional states than we often allow for, and that negative and positive emotions can exist side by side. As many empty nesters find, endings can be new beginnings.
For many there is a silver lining. A national survey of over 1,000 parents of young adults found that while 84 percent of parents missed their kids once they moved out, 60 percent were glad to have more time with their spouse or partner or for themselves and 90 percent were happy their kids were independent. Greater freedom, reconnecting with partners and friends, pursuing goals, finding new hobbies, fewer day to day stressors, and travel are among the many ways an empty nest can unlock freedom and fulfillment.
Is there a friend you never had time to see? Make plans for lunch. Is there a place you always wanted to visit? Call your travel agent. Does playing Bridge appeal? Join a card club. Reframing the transition as a gateway and not a dead end unleashes possibility and potential. The key is to replace the stillness with a new rhythm. Your child's life will be filled with fresh experiences. Make sure yours is as well.
Instead of an empty-nester, reimagine yourself as an emerging eagle.