Years ago when our kids were in elementary school, my friend Noelle had a vision. “When the girls go off to college,” she said, “I’m going to sell the house, buy an RV and travel around the country. That way there’s no room for them to move back in.” She laughed like it was a joke, but she meant it, too. Parenthood was exhausting.
I thought it was glorious idea, so I co-opted it as my own.
After losing touch for a while, we reconnected on Facebook. I watched her youngest graduate high school, spend one last summer with the family, and take off for college. No RV, no selling of the house, no big happy dance. Noelle posted that she was feeling sad. I knew her pain.
When our first child left home, The Hubby and I put her on a plane to Belgium for a cultural exchange. Honeybunny would be gone a year. After arrival, we were strongly advised not to communicate with her for several months, so that she could better acclimate to her new family and foreign surroundings. Being cut off was tough but necessary for total immersion.
I cried that day, putting her on the plane. Then I moped around the house for another two days afterwards, drinking Cabernet and feeling despondent. My heart hurt, heavy with sadness. That hole in your life where your child used to be? Moms aren’t kidding. That’s real.
It took a few weeks to emerge from the darkest corners of my daughter-less funk.
Honeybunny returned a year later, enriched and matured. She spent one last summer at home before heading off to college. We drove her ourselves, halfway across the country to Wyoming, the old RX 300 stuffed full of treasures to adorn her new life.
Saying goodbye was less traumatic the second time, perhaps because we’d done it before, accustomed as we were to her living abroad. But still, our baby was on her own, maybe this time forever. I was grateful for the long drive home to sort through it all.
Having a second daughter in the house helped ease the pain, so we spent as much time with our teenaged Wildchild as she could possibly stand. But soon it was her turn to say goodbye as well. Now we faced a truly empty nest.
With light at the end of the parenting tunnel, we dreamed of foreign adventure.
Over the years, my travel-the-country-in-an-RV fantasy morphed into a vision of living abroad as expats. We didn’t need an RV, just passports, plane tickets and AirBnb. The Hubby could work anywhere with an internet connection. We’d sold the house years ago for the mobility of renting. We could do this. We could live the dream.
We packed everything we owned into storage, got on a plane with our youngest, and took her to Brazil. She, too, would be doing a cultural exchange. We spent two days getting to know her host family, said our goodbyes in Sao Paulo, and flew off to Chile to see if we wanted to live there.
I felt sad saying goodbye, but the foreign travel distracted me. Her departure didn’t weigh as heavy as it might, had we sent her off from home. And she’d be back for one more semester of high school, so this wasn’t goodbye forever. Not yet.
The strangest part of the whole experience was being alone with the hubby again. All us, all the time, I had forgotten what that was like.
Six months later, our youngest returned from Brazil, we moved to Puerto Rico, and she came with us, completing high school online. The minute she finished, Wildchild headed stateside, but not to college. She wwoofed on farms over the summer, road tripped with friends in the fall, got a job for winter, and now she’s hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. We’re calling it a gap year.
Savings from babysitting provided seed funding. She didn’t ask for money, wanting to make it on her own. I didn’t think she’d last more than a few months. I stood vigilantly in mom-mode, refusing to accept my empty nest because surely she’d come running back any moment. But by Christmas, I knew. She was doing well at her job, making plans for the trail, and telling me she hated our new tropical climate and didn’t want to come back, ever. Ouch.
My kids were gone. Really gone. What the hell was I supposed to do now?
I’d burnt out on my career. I had no money-making passions at all. I was adrift. The kids were doing great, following their hearts, doing what they wanted, working toward their goals. I should be pleased. I am pleased. Good job. Yes, yay me. I’m lucky, I’m grateful, so what’s my problem? Why am I crying as I type?
I googled for answers, of course. Google knows everything. I found some stories that I’ll share below, but for me, this guy sending his kid to college absolutely nailed it:
“With due respect to my son’s feelings, I have the worse of it. I know something he doesn’t — not quite a secret, but incomprehensible to the young. He is experiencing the adjustments that come with beginnings. His life is starting for real. I have begun the long letting go.”
Snap. Their beginnings are my endings, the long goodbye. Old age stalks me like never before: my vision has blurred, I have random pains, lumpy thighs, and thinning hair. I’m menopausing, I can’t drink alcohol like I used to… Shit, I’m on the decline.
I don’t want to decay, or die. But it’s inevitable. Nature always calls us home.
I never thought I’d be that parent who can’t let go, yet here I am. These beautiful girls have been separating from me since the day they were born. Growing up is letting go, for them and me. It’s a grieving process, really. Shall we go through it together?
- Denial: They’re not really gone. Surely they’ll come crawling back. Any minute.
- Anger: Why don’t they call? Why can’t I go wwoofing? Why can’t I hike the PCT? Why is The Hubby badgering me to do something meaningful with my life?
- Bargaining: If we buy the plane tickets, maybe they’ll come see us for Christmas. Or maybe we should visit them stateside somewhere.
- Depression: My life is over, what’s the point? I’m useless now.
- Acceptance: Well, at least the house is always clean, I don’t have to worry about their food issues, and we never have to lock the bedroom door, ever.
My friend Noelle seems to be doing better these days. She went to Puerto Vallarta with her mom, and then a few weeks later, met up with a friend in Honolulu. Travel is good therapy. The hubby and I have taken trips, too, and I must admit, it’s a whole lot easier and cheaper with just two people.
My 30-something friends have a completely different perspective on the situation. They tell me this is an exciting opportunity, a chance to reinvent myself, which I suppose is true. So, what to do, what to do? Perhaps I’ll become a writer… :)
Saying Goodbye to My Child, the Youngster
My Very Empty Nest
An Empty Nest Mom Takes A Road Trip To The Fountain Of Youth
7 Life Hacks to Deal with Empty Nest Syndrome
7 Strange Questions That Help You Find Your Life Purpose