I saw it coming for many years as children left for college and then missions and while I had my youngest child home by herself for four years. But when she left for collegenearly five years ago, I was surprised at the intensity of my loneliness and sadness. For 33 years I had devoted myself to the care of three daughters and four sons. What was I supposed to do now that they were either married or in college or on missions? How was I supposed to live with phantom voices of their childhood I heard everywhere in the house and the yard? The rest of my life seemed to stretch before me with little purpose and no joy.
Mine was a particular situation that I’m sure many others share. I raised my children on the outskirts of a small city with few job opportunities for their lofty dreams and goals. It didn’t occur to me until years into the saying good-byes that absolutely no one was going to settle down in their home town. I had always pictured grandchildren around my Sunday table, frequent cookouts, a yearly cousins camp and babysitting grandchildren on a Friday night while their parents caught a movie.
One daughter did move back with her husband, who shared our hometown—the only in-law who did—and stayed long enough to have us fall in love with two grandchildren, then moved two-and-a-half hours away. Ouch. I can’t eat at CiCi’s Pizza without thinking of the night they drove away to their new home after enjoying the pizza buffet.
Then four years ago I felt blessed because within a two-week period three children called from Utah in various stages of work and education to say they were moving back to the area—one to the MBA program at Duke University in nearby Durham, North Carolina; one to the UNC law school in nearby Chapel Hill, N.C., and one to a job in the D.C. area. Surely the D.C. one would love the city he had always been drawn to and the other two would find post-graduation jobs in the huge Raleigh-Durham area.
Nope. One’s been in Arkansas since last summer and one is heading to Chicago for MBA school. One did stay relatively close in the Raleigh area, but we’ll see where he finds a job until we know for sure. And my youngest daughter just moved to the Dallas area after her husband graduated from a Stanford University master’s program. Their other choice was the D.C. area, which they didn’t even tell me about to save me from the disappointment if they chose differently. I found out anyway. (I know how to Google.)
And then in a turn of events, they lived with us for five months before moving to Dallas, so besides saying good-bye to my daughter all over again, I had to say good-bye to an adorable two-year-old who knew how I would always respond to “Hold me, Grandma.” But the five months were wonderful fun!
So why am I telling you this? So you’ll feel sorry for me? (Maybe just a little.) But mostly I want to give some survival tips to all those thousands of parents who are getting ready in the next couple of months to send that last child off to college or off on a mission and then turn around to an empty house and face the rest of their lives. Of course, I’ve learned the first thing on the list is to mail them all the stuff, especially charger cords, that they’ve forgotten, but then what?
As one of my friends says, “Why does it seem like with children the days are years, but then looking back, the years seem like days?” When the children are young, it seems like they’ll never grown up, but in no time they do and are gone. What to do, what to do . . .
Here are a few things I’ve learned, which I hope can help someone facing some difficult good-byes in the next little bit:
1.Everyone’s reaction to their children growing up and leaving is different. I talked to one mother who said it was actually harder on her husband than on her because he had spent years coaching them in every sport the children had played. So there’s no right or wrong way to feel or to act. If you can shut the door behind him or her or them and turn the empty bedroom into an exercise room the next weekend without crying, that’s fine. If you can’t open the bedroom door until it’s time for the absent child to come home for Christmas, that’s fine too. (That worked for me!)
There are no rules, just emotions. My daughter’s old room smelled like her perfume for years and hurt my heart every time I went in until I gave her old prom dresses away. Now that perfume has been replaced by the fragrance of my granddaughter’s hair detangler. Life is cruel!
I have realized that the period of time after the children first leave can be just as difficult an adjustment as the period of time after bringing that first baby home. Your whole life is turned upside down then, yet people are much more understanding of parents during that time, but laugh off or discount the pain of life changing again when the children leave. You can begin to feel odd or mal-adjusted or guilty when in fact you are just experiencing a major change in life as you have known and loved it for years.
2.Try to find something to do that you have always wanted to do, but never had the time to do. Take music lessons or write a book or work on family history. But don’t force yourself to jump right in if you don’t feel like it. Take some time to get used to the quiet and then decide what you can best spend your time doing that is worthwhile and productive. On the other hand, if you are like most parents whose greatest joys (and challenges) came from raising children, oil painting and yoga lessons will probably not fill the whole entire hole. I enjoy writing, but it will never be as fun as Friday night high school football games. But carving a new life for yourself gets better and easier over time.
3.Prepare yourself. Don’t expect the children who have flown the nest to miss you as much as you miss them. I have learned this painfully. When one son left for college, I was so excited to hear about his days and his new friends and erroneously thought he was just as excited to tell me about them. Not so. By the time I had called him every day for the first couple of days, as did his aunt and his grandmother, he asked, “Just how often are you expecting to talk to me?” Ouch. And in my circumstances, and it’s the same with other mothers I know, as a general rule, the daughters do a much better job of staying in touch and needing their moms than do the sons.