Sunday, July 16, 2017

Have You Had to Face Being an "Empty Nester"?

Mara here: My husband and I are about to have a test run of being empty nesters. Our daughter Malia, who is 16, is going off to an academic summer program at Cornell University for three weeks. 

For most kids, going off to camp or a summer program is not unusual. By the time their children are 16, many parents have had a chance to experience an extended period of time without them. I know I went off for weeks at a time when I was young.

But because of the relatively unusual experiences my daughter has had with dancing and acting, so far, all her extended times away from home have involved me being with her. When we were in Utah (where she was on a TV show for several seasons) and Japan (where she was a cast member in a Sesame Street-type set of educational DVD's), I had to accompany her as her guardian.

But this time she’s going off by herself. She’ll be staying in the dorms and getting a preview of what college life will be like.

And I’ll be at home. 

I’m not a particularly sentimental person. Between my husband and me, I know that life without Malia around is going to be harder on him. He’s more of a people person. In addition, he and Malia have a very special bond, partly because they’re a lot alike. They’re more bubbly and full of "life zest" (for lack of a better expression). And although everyone knows I don’t love Malia any less than he does, I'm less exuberant in general about being around other people. Plus, I’ve had a lot of one-on-one time with her. All those months I was traveling with her while she was working, he was at home without us. For three years, there were big chunks of time when he didn’t get to share her life. 

For some parents, being a “stage mom” makes them cling more to their kids. For me, the experience made it even more important to me that she understand that she needs to be able to take care of herself. (And honestly, it turns out that there is such a thing as too much time with a 13 year old girl...)

But my 13 year-old is now 16. And she's already very independent. So, in a practical way, there are many things that won’t be much different when she's not living at home. I don’t do her laundry, manage her schedule, monitor her homework, or take care of her in many of the typical ways that parents take care of kids. 

That said, she's a major part of life at our house. She’s a big presence (i.e. loud) and, as our only child, obviously her needs often get first priority. So it will be weird to go to the grocery store and not be trying to remember what food Malia wants me to get. And I won’t need to worry about whether or not she's driving safely, or whether or not she'll get locked out of the house.

I know that I'll still worry, but it will be the worry that comes from simply not knowing what she’s doing. And it will be a source of worry knowing that I won't be able to get to her (without a lengthy plane ride) if she’s having a rough time. Most of all, it will be the worry that probably never ends for parents: whether or not she’s happy.

Fortunately she’s not at all worried. She’s excited and has been looking forward to the program for several months. And I know that she’s ready. She knows how to take care of herself—except when it has anything to do with spiders—and she’s good at making friends and enjoys adventures. And she has her trusty phone with her so she can reach out to me at any time she wants. And I can (not very subtly) stalk her social media accounts to see what she’s up to and hopefully get a glimpse of her new friends.

For her, it’s just an exciting trip that will be full of new experiences. For me and her father, it will mean adjusting to a different version of our everyday experiences. While many of my friends who are parents have openly lamented the idea of their kids leaving for college (pretty much since their kids’ birth), I’ve never really worried about being upset when that time comes and she leaves home. But maybe it’s simply that the enormity of what her leaving means is something I can’t fathom until it happens. 

I used to feel very sure I would be prepared for her leave when the time came. Perhaps I’ll feel differently after this summer.

Here are some questions I asked my mom about this subject:

How did you feel when I went to my first extended summer program away from home?

It was really hard. The things you mentioned in your piece, that you say you might be worrying about when Malia goes off, that's what I worried about too. I just had to hope you were enjoying yourself and that you weren't lonely. When I went to summer camp as a child, I used to get terribly lonely for home. So when you went away, I worried about that for you. [Mara note: I don't remember getting homesick.]

Just like you said, parents want their kids to be happy—even though no one is happy all the time. But that's what we as parents want. I still want it for you and your brother, even though you're both in your forties. 

We didn’t have cell phones or internet back then. Was it hard not to be in regular communication?

That's an interesting question because, back then, we had no concept of being in the type of regular communication that's possible now for parents and children due to cell phones and texting. Today, if you were a teenager and left home and I couldn't been in touch with you via cell phone or texting—I would freak out! But when you were young, I just accepted that when you weren't here, I wouldn't know what you were doing for big chunks of time.

I will say that if you were 16 now, I would feel much more comfortable about you leaving home because I'd know I could get in touch with you easily. But when you were young, we didn't miss it because it didn't exist. Hopefully this new ease of communication makes parents more comfortable when their kids go off to summer camp or for other reasons.

When I left home and you and dad were empty nesters, was it a hard adjustment for you?

The adjustment was a lot easier when you left home than when your brother, Jamal, left because you went to college in the same town we live in. That said, it was still hard. I'd come home and expect you to be here. I missed the sound of your voice in the house. I'd turn a corner and think I was going to see you. So, yes, it was hard. 

It just wasn't as traumatic as when Jamal left because he went to a college that was 600 miles away, and this was before cell phones and texting. You said in your piece that you think you'll be fine when Malia leaves. Well, I thought I'd be fine when Jamal went off to college, but I wasn't. Actually, I wrote about the experience in one of my books. We drove him to U.C. San Diego and helped him move into his apartment (he didn't live in the dorms). Your dad was driving us back home from San Diego, and I suddenly started sobbing uncontrollably because I could not imagine living at home without him. I was sobbing so hard that your dad pulled off the freeway. I like to joke that he was worried I would grab the wheel and turn the car around in the middle of the road. 

Even though it was less traumatic with you because I could see you more, I still missed each of you as much. I don't know if it's true for all parents who have more than one child, but I didn't miss you any less just because I had already gone through the difficulty of a child leaving home with your brother. It's a major life transition. 

I've watched other friends who are younger than I am go through coping with their children leaving home. It can be really traumatic. Parents seem to feel better about it after their children come home for the first time—usually at Thanksgiving. That first visit home from your brother seemed to be the final healing from the trauma I felt that day on the freeway. It was easy for me to see him off to college again after that holiday. Of course, I didn't have that happen with you because you lived nearby even though not at home. Actually I don't remember how often you came home once you moved out. [Mara note: I didn't come home, but we'd meet on campus for lunch probably once a week or I would pick you at the law school and we'd go to a restaurant.] 

Right, so we saw each other regularly.

How did being child-free change your relationship to dad?

I think the way it changed my relationship with your dad was obscured by the fact that, at the time, I was in an incredibly stressful job. I was the Dean of Students at the law school and I was overwhelmed by the volume of work and the stresses that came with having to counsel students who were troubled and having a difficult time. (I actually bought some books on counseling because I had no training for that!)

Because of my job, when you left home, I wasn't able to just turn all my attention to your dad. And he was busy at work too.

But it did happen a few years later. We started traveling more and we did a lot more things together. But I don't feel as if our relationship was so centered around our kids that when your dad and I were left alone together, we realized that we didn't have anything in common. I have heard of that happening, but I am thankful that didn't happen to us.

In fact, you and your brother had friends who confided in me that they were worried their parents would split up after they left home because they thought their parents had nothing in common other than raising them. But interestingly enough, those couples, maybe 25-30 years later, are still together.

I'm sure that some couples do break up after their kids leave home, but other couples are able to rediscover each other and that can be a wonderful experience.

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