I knew this was coming. Though sending my youngest daughter to college was always part of the plan, I chose to ignore it.
“Mom, did you fill out those college forms?”
“What college forms? You’re not going to college.”
As usual, she did as she pleased.
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Reality knocked me in the knees last week as I helped Marissa move into her dorm at Stanford University — 2,864 miles away from home in Orlando, Fla.
For temporary pain relief, I got invested in her dorm decor. In a final fit of mothering, I filled carts at Bed Bath & Beyond and Target with bed-bug proof mattress protectors, extra-long twin sheets, durable towels and laundry soap.
On the plane home, reality hit: While I created her new nest, mine emptied.
The fact that I had done this once before, two years ago when my oldest went to college — 1,158 miles away — didn’t pull any force from the blow.
Both send-offs felt like an amputation. Only last time, I still had one chick in the nest.
“The definition of grief is the conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in a familiar pattern or behavior,” said Russell Friedman, co-author of The Grief Recovery Handbook and Moving On, and partner at the Grief Recovery Institute, in Sherman Oaks, Calif.
“Sheesh! I could be your poster child!” I said.
This man didn’t know my life, but if he did he would have me involuntarily committed.
“An empty nest is that and more,” he said. “When a child leaves home, all sorts of conflicting feelings come up.”
Ironically, and here’s the good part, the antidote for the hollow feeling of an empty nest, experts say, is exactly what I always recommend: Remodel!
Only this time, the remodeling is of your heart, your head, and, to a lesser degree, your home, said Friedman.
Marie Dubuque, a life coach in St. Louis and an empty nester as of last month, could relate to my sad state, but she’s more together.
“When I get sad, I think, ‘What’s the alternative? That they stay home? I raised them for this, to go and become independent. We accomplished that.’”
Since dropping her son off at college, “our home is becoming less about kids and more about being a sanctuary,” she said. “Instead of utter chaos a lot of the time, it has become a refuge.”
To adapt to the new family dynamic, she redecorated her loft, once a kid zone filled with video games. “When you have a teenage boy, you have electronics everywhere,” she said. She converted the space into a “relaxing retreat with an Oriental feel,” including a small fountain.
“When I sit there and read, I think, ‘This is the beginning of my new life.’”
Friedman applauds that move, and says that’s the work of the empty nester.
“I can’t tell you how to create a space, or re-create a space, that represents you now,” he said, as yet another of my interviews turns into a therapy session. “That’s a solo effort, but that’s your new job.”
When kids leave home, here are some ways experts say empty nesters can adapt:
Change up the decor. If you keep everything like it is, as a shrine to your children, it’s hard to move on and start the next phase of life, Chicago psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo said.
Start with some of the trophies and artwork. Take them down “so that everywhere you look isn’t about kids,” Dubuque said. Gradually, make it an adult home. “Then, when you look around, you don’t see a place where the kids once were. Instead, you see a new beginning.”
Stop short of their room. As Dubuque did with her son, I have assured my daughters that wherever I live, they will always have a bedroom. “Our kids aren’t moving away. They’ll be home for holidays and summer. Having their safe haven at home is important for them.” They’re going through a big change, too. Whether they admit it, having their room to go home to is a comfort.
Don’t toss their stuff without them. Though cleaning out their room once they’re out is tempting, tread lightly. Purging a lot of their things without them can feel like a violation, said Lombardo. “Keep in mind their feelings.”
Ask, who you are now? Then think about how your home can reflect that. Maybe the playroom becomes an art studio, gym or office. Friedman recalls the time he came home from college to find his mother had remodeled the house to reflect her new life. “I had a lot of feelings about that,” he said. But looking back years later he understands and appreciates that his mom expressed her freedom to make it her own space.
Not all parents feel sad. Others are saying, “Woo-hoo!” said Lombardo. “I get to focus on me now and can travel and take classes.” Either way, she said, “The goal is to write the next chapter.”