Tag: empty nest syndrome (page 1 of 3)

The empty nest: Advice for beginners and old hands

Dear Wendy,

It’s that time of year again—the little kids are heading back to school, and the older ones are getting ready to leave the nest, some for the first time. And about-to-be empty nest parents are either heaving a sigh of relief, or breaking out boxes of tissues, or both.

This time last year, I was just trying to prepare myself for our youngest child’s departure. My feelings were up and down like a toilet seat—one minute I was filled with pride, the next I was terrified that after 18 years, Rachel would realize she no longer needed me, and we’d drift apart. I veered madly from grief to elation to sadness to nervous anticipation…mostly because I had no idea what to expect.

So today I thought I’d resurrect some of the letters you and I wrote one another last year, as a kind of reading list for parents whose kids are getting ready to make that all-important leap into adulthood.

How to cope during the last week before college starts

Prepping the fledglings for flight
Wendy leads off with some important tips on the important advice we give…and on letting go of our darlings. Plus some asides about my driving, which you can safely ignore.

The Big Day is almost here
I spent much of last summer trying to persuade myself that I’d be absolutely fine when Rachel left, but in that last week before school started, the reality hit. I have to admit, I freaked out just a little. When our youngest kids leave home, our families need to shift and adapt to get ready. And we all need to be just a little bit more understanding toward one another.


College dorm rooms: Just one of the changes to come

What’s the plan, Stan? Health crises and the college student
No one wants to think about “the worst that could happen,” and we don’t want to freak you out when you may already be holding on by your fingernails. But if your college-bound son or daughter has a chronic illness, you both need to put a sensible plan in place to ensure they stay healthy. In fact, every college or university student should be aware of their health-care options, and know what to do in case of emergency.


Our asthma plan looks a bit like this.

What to do when the kids leave home

Where I introduce Karen to a list:
Here’s the one where you showed me how important it is to take care of myself once the door shuts behind the last child. Re-reading your excellent list, I’m struck by how much of your advice I actually took, and by how well it worked for me.


My version of Listie. Try not to gloat, dear.

There. I just admitted that you were right about something. Savour the moment, Wendy. It won’t happen often.

It’s Friday. Time for another list.
In this one, I add to your list with a few more helpful hints on getting through the days after your child leaves home.
Yes, you might cry, and that’s okay. But be prepared: get the kind of tissues with aloe in them. You can thank me later.


This woman is only pretending to sneeze, a clever ploy to disguise her tears. Also, she could be about to cry. You never know.

Adapting to the new reality

A beginning, a middle, and an end: Parenting, change, and the empty nest
Your child is in another city. Or another country. Or maybe in the same city, but in another residence. It’s just you now (or you and your partner, or you and your cats and/or dog), and it’s time to figure out what this new reality looks like.
In this letter, I remember what I used to tell my kids when they were upset by a change…and I start applying it to myself.

Pets and the empty nest
Humans aren’t the only ones affected by change. Our animal friends can find the new empty nest disruptive and upsetting. In this letter, we talk about what to expect, and how you can help your animals adapt.


Call me when the kids come home again.

From playground to college: Some things don’t change
You’re moving into a new stage of parenting, but be reassured: your kids still need you. They might not show it the same way, but if you’re aware of the signs, you’ll begin to see that your role is the same as it ever was. Except that now you have a clean house for several months of the year.

I hope this list helps at least a few parents cope with the upcoming emotional rollercoaster. Or at least serves as a welcome distraction.

And readers, remember: millions of parents have made this transition, and continue to survive and thrive. You will, too. Just give yourself time, be kind to yourself and others, and look after yourself.



Summer camp: A practice run for the empty nest

Dear Wendy,

When you and I were young, the concept of “summer camp” was pretty much completely foreign to us.

Our family went in for extended family camping trips, involving large canvas tents, World War II vintage canvas cots supported by iron rods, WWII sleeping bags (complete with canvas carry-sacks), Coleman stoves and lanterns with unbelievably fiddly silk mantles that disintegrated if you looked at them funny…and tarps. Many, many tarps.

Mitchell and I still love to camp, and I still recite one of Dad’s camping mantras as we pack: “You can never have too many tarps, or too much rope.” Words to live by.

When Mitchell and I started our life together, he was fascinated by my stories of trekking out to the wilds of British Columbia…partly because in his experience, “camp” carried a whole different connotation.

For him, camp was the place where he got sent each summer to be tormented by a cabin full of boys and a couple of teenaged counselors, all of whom seemed to have received the “let’s pick on Mitchell” memo. His memories of summer camp sounded more like Lord of the Flies than Swiss Family Irving.

That’s why we never sent Adrian away to summer camp—Mitchell refused to allow any kid of his to be subjected to the bullying he’d experienced. We stuck to family camping as our summer pastime, and that was that.

Then, the summer when Rachel was 6, your kids attended an Ontario summer camp for a few weeks. You might remember that you, Lars, Mitchell, Rachel, and I drove to pick them up, and when we arrived, your girls showed Rachel around. She was enthralled, and for the next several months, all she talked about was “when I go away to summer camp….”

Eventually she wore us down, and we started looking into sending her to camp. We discovered that Camp Manitou has a great reputation for its arts, sports, and outdoor programs, but also for its special focus on first-time and younger campers.


You want us to send you WHERE?

As the following summer approached, Rachel got more and more excited about being a “Freshkid,” and it became increasingly clear to us that she was absolutely ready for the upcoming 3-week separation.

The question was, were we?

While Mitchell and I were looking forward to a temporary break from being parents, and an opportunity to be just a couple for the first time in many years, I was nervous. What if Rachel hated camp? What if she was homesick? Who would tuck her in at night, and sing Dream a Little Dream of Me to her? She was only 7 years old, for heaven’s sake! What were we thinking?


It would be very wild, and very big.

And what would Mitchell and I do with all that free time? Would we even remember how to be a couple? The mind boggled.

On our way to camp, Rachel suddenly grasped the reality of the situation: she was really and truly going away. She’d be surrounded by strangers, away from everything familiar, in a strange place. She tried to stay brave, but during the drive from Ottawa to Parry Sound, she used up several boxes of tissues.

I have this theory that about 75% of successful parenting stems from the ability to act calm, even when you’re not. So I kept up a cheerful façade, and resisted the urge to tell Rachel we’d turn around and come get her if she hated camp. That kind of “deal” would have told her “we don’t really think you can handle this.”

Instead, I reminded her that the counselors were there to help her feel at home, and everyone at camp would be friendly. It would be like having a really cool teenaged babysitter for a few weeks. She’d love it.

We’d read through all the handy tips and guidelines the camp had sent us over the winter, and so we knew about Manitou’s “no contact with home” policy: they don’t allow kids to bring cellphones or computers, because they know that the more kids stay in touch with their (nervous) parents, the longer it takes to overcome any homesickness, and start actually enjoying the camp experience.

This makes sense: parents and kids can reinforce one anothers’ anxiety about the new experience. And continually touching base sends the message, “You can’t handle this without me.” So instead of telling Rachel, “We’re going to miss you so much!” we focused on how much fun she’d have: “We love you, and we know you’re going to love camp!”

We let Rachel know ahead of time that we’d drop her off, stay long enough for her to find her counselor, and then we’d be leaving. She tried to bargain for “stay until I’m sure I’ll be okay,” but we told her we were both 100% positive that she’d be just fine, and that she wouldn’t really start having a good time until we’d left.

We were lying through our teeth, of course. I think Mitchell and I were both shaking a little as we left Rachel that day. We headed back to the car, and I think we might have cried a little before we started the trip back home.

I won’t lie: once we’d made the break, we had a wonderful 3 weeks together…but by the end of week 2, we’d started looking longingly at the calendar, counting down the days. As we left to pick up our girl, we were both excited and terrified: what if we’d abandoned our kid in a place she hated, while we gallivanted around going out to adult dinners and long walks by the Canal?

At Manitou, I looked around for Rachel, but couldn’t see her. I did notice a tanned kid with wild-looking hair and unbelievably long legs, lounging in a Muskoka chair near the medical cabin, but there was no sign of our daughter. Then that wild girl looked my way and smiled.

Wendy, it was like she’d grown up by 2 years in those 3 weeks: she was calm, relaxed, confident, and completely at ease in her new surroundings. Granted, she hadn’t brushed her long hair the entire time she’d been there, and I suspect her bathing routine had been a little haphazard, but no matter. She’d had  a marvellous time, and she was 100% determined to come back the following year.


Okay, so she didn’t learn spelling at camp. Or calligraphy.

She did return for several summers, and camp became an indelible part of her growing up: it was a place that belonged to her alone, where Mitchell and I couldn’t follow, where she could carve her own path.


Showing Sabte the pictures from her summer adventure

Last year, as we began to prepare for her first year at college, I thought of all those summers away, and realized that not only had they been an incredibly valuable part of her growing up years, but they’d helped prepare us as a family for this new experience of “distance parenting.”

Once more, she’d be setting her own agenda, and we wouldn’t be there to help her out. But as she headed off to college, I wouldn’t have to pretend to be confident that she could handle it…or that we could. I already knew.



The empty nest: 6 things I’ve learned since September

Dear Wendy,

So it’s mid-April. The blobby remains of last week’s snowstorm are still melting; the Canada geese have begun to wing past on their northward trek. Signs point to impending spring, though I’m not totally convinced yet.


Spring? Not so much.

You’re on your way home from what sounded like a fantastic (but probably too short) visit with your two girls in Toronto. And around here, I’m looking forward to the end of the week, when Rachel returns to Ottawa from her first year of college.


How is this even possible? Didn’t she leave just a couple of weeks ago? (Well, yes, technically she did, as she was home for a weekend visit in March. But you take my point.)

As I look back to last summer, though, I realize that my sense of time wasn’t the only expectation that was a bit off-kilter…I had a lot to learn.

For instance: Before Rachel left, other empty-nest parents predicted I’d feel elation, grief, celebration, emptiness, pride, confusion. Although there were elements of truth in all of that, I found the reality was quite different.

I’ve learned so much since that late August day when Mitchell and I drove home from Humber College in the rain, leaving Rachel to settle into her dorm room and begin this new phase of her life.

Here’s a partial list:

  1. Expect your feelings to go up and down like a toilet seat. Seriously.
    One day I’d be thrilled at my newfound freedom. The next, I’d be missing Rachel like crazy. Then I’d stumble across a crumpled, decaying cache of food wrappers, orange peels, and discarded socks stuffed under the family room couch, and my emotional barometer would zip back up to “Yee-haw! No more weird messes to clean! No more nagging her to pick up after herself! I’m FREEEEE!”


    College dorm rooms: Just one of the changes to come

  2. No matter how much you think this whole college thing is going to cost, double it and add $30.
    And that’s just for starters. In high school, kids come home and ask you to fork over $50 for a field trip. This is nothing—NOTHING—compared to what they’ll hit you up for once they’re in an institute of higher education.
    First, there are books. And dorm supplies. And books. And (in the case of design students, at least) extra-special magic markers that cost approximately $10 a pop…and she’ll need about 100 of them. And then there’s all that model-making equipment. It all adds up at an alarming rate. Be prepared.
  3. Technology is your friend. In an average day, Rachel sends me about 5 random texts and a couple of Facebook convos. Once or twice a week, we settle in for a longer Skype conversation.
    Until this year, I’d never been a huge fan of Skype—it tends to fail intermittently, and the screen can freeze at odd moments, so one minute Rachel’s lips are moving, and the next she looks like one of those old Monty Python talking-head caricatures. But whatever. It’s free, and it keeps us in touch. Good enough for me.
  4. Pets have feelings too. Our pets all seemed to react to Rachel’s departure, and needed some TLC for the first few weeks. Ralph the Siamese spent several weeks prowling around the house, looking distressed when he couldn’t find Rachel. Our dog, who is usually pretty easygoing, seemed edgy, and took to giving yodeling concerts first thing in the morning.
    Animals are most comfortable with consistency, and having a kid leave for college shakes things up, for a while at least. (Well, except for Stella the Tabby Cat, of course, who operates on a whole different frequency, and is generally oblivious to our comings and goings.)


    Ralph and Stella make an excellent winter lap-warmer.

  5. You’re still a parent; it’s just that your job description has changed. One of the things that worried me most about having our youngest leave home was that I’d been a mother for more than 30 years. I like being a mother; I’m pretty good at it, and I get a lot of satisfaction from it. It seemed unfair that the thing I’d been working toward since Rachel was born—that she’d be able to live independently as an adult—was the very thing that would rob me of a role I love.
    I needn’t have fretted. It turns out that I’m still needed, still important in my kids’ lives. Now, though, I no longer have to wipe their noses or nag them to do their homework. I don’t see the down side of this.


    Yep, still here.

  6. The empty nest isn’t really empty, so don’t get too used to it. Of all this year’s revelations, I think this surprised me the most. Even though I knew that the academic year is shorter after high school—ending in mid-April rather than late June—I figured it would be a long haul, and I’d need to steel myself for the emptiness of it all.
    Wrong-o. I’d forgotten that the calendar would be punctuated with breaks: Canadian Thanksgiving, Christmas break (a full month, in our case), study week, Easter…it seemed like Mitchell and I would just start getting used to being alone, when it’d be time to pick Rachel up at the train station again. Not that I’m complaining!

And now, here we are at the end of this first year…just when I’m starting to feel like I’m getting the hang of this whole empty nest thing.

So maybe my biggest insight is this: It’s really all about flexibility, isn’t it?

If early parenthood is all about setting up rules and roles and structures, then maybe “late-stage parenting” is about flexibility: letting go of rigid expectations, rolling with the punches, and stepping back to allow our kids to experience the excitement and challenges of their own independence.

And in the same vein, it’s about letting them try their wings for the school year, cheering them on as they try new things…and then welcoming them home when it’s time.



Marriage and the empty nest: The gift of silence

Dear Wendy,

Well, we’re really back into the swing of life as empty nesters once more. Last week we talked about how the January post-holiday back-to-school adjustment is just as hard as the September one—which is true. But the good part is that now we’ve got a bit of experience under our belts, it seems to have taken a lot less time and effort for Mitchell and me to slip back into no-kids mode.

I was talking to a friend the other day, though, and she was saying she’s worried that when her own high-school-age children leave home, her marriage will fall apart under the strain. She called it “empty nest marriage syndrome,” because apparently that’s a thing now. (I looked it up. She’s right. The things you learn on the Internet!)


See? Someone even wrote a book about it. It must be legit.

At the time I wasn’t sure what she meant, though, so I asked her to explain.

My friend, whom I’ll call Leslie, told me she isn’t sure how she and her husband will manage being “shoved together” all day. For the past 20 years, their main goal has been to collaborate in nurturing and raising their kids. Once that goal is gone, she said she’s worried that she and her husband will look at each other and say, “Now what?”

I can understand this: when the kids are still at home, a marriage can feel like a relay race, with one partner tossing the torch to the other as they dash back and forth, ferrying their children here and there, making sure homework is done, forcing sleepy-eyed teens out of bed in the morning, feeding herds of invading kids who drop by after school, fishing science experiments out of the back of the fridge…

And once all that ends…the house is quiet. The kids are gone.There is sufficient hot water for longer showers—and no one else using the bathroom. The fridge stays stocked for days. The dishwasher runs every couple of days.

And the parents do one of two things: they eye one another across the great divide of the silent living room and think, “Who the heck is that person and what is s/he doing in my house?”; or they high-five each other and say, “Phew. We made it. Let’s go out for dinner. Or a play. Or a walk. Because we are free at last! Great God Almighty, we are FREE AT LAST!”

I can tell you which camp Mitchell and I fall into.


We fall into the “those people are probably lunatics” camp.

Don’t get me wrong: we miss having both our kids around (though Adrian, mensch that he is, drops by for dinner twice a week, regular as clockwork). But we also really appreciate the fact that we have moved to a new phase of parenting: call it “distance parenting” or “Phase 2 parenting” (a term I made up recently, that I quite like)—whatever, it means that it’s no longer our job to ensure that anyone’s homework is done on time, or that anyone gets dumped in front of a high school at 9 a.m. sharp every weekday morning, or that permission slips are duly signed before getting lost in the bottom of a knapsack.

As for Leslie’s “we’ll be tripping over each other all the time” argument, that hasn’t been my experience. Mitchell and I spend just as much time together as we did when both kids lived here. It’s the quality of that time that’s really changed over the past few months. Less stress, fewer interruptions, fewer schedules to take into consideration, more time to just chat and make plans…I’m really not seeing the down-side.

In fact, I realized the other day that the last time Mitchell and I had this much uninterrupted time together was in (get ready for this) 1977. Or possibly 1982, if you want to count the time when I was pregnant with Adrian.

This has a lot to do with the peculiar trajectory of our relationship, which started off kind of wonky—most couples don’t have the baby first, move in second, and get married a couple of years later—but I think that might be why I appreciate this new phase so much. It comes as a half-expected gift, one I’d sort of forgotten about while we were in the thick of the whole adventure of raising our kids. And so it feels just that much more precious to me.

So that’s exactly what I told my friend, and I hope she bought it. I’d hate to think of the two of them passing up this great opportunity, but I guess only time will tell.




Post-parenting life: A night (or three) at the theatre (AftertheKidsLeave.com)
Boomer life: September camping in the Canadian Shield (AftertheKidsLeave.com)
One man, one woman, one cat (AftertheKidsLeave.com)



Hello, good-bye: Return to the empty nest

Dear Wendy,

Well, here we go again…after a month of Parenting in Situ, this week we start the transition back to Parenting in Absentia. By which I mean that Rachel, who’s been with us since early December, is heading back to college for a new term.

When we return after dropping her in Toronto, it will be to a (relatively) empty house, occupied only by two adults (okay, plus two cats and a dog). I can’t really make up my mind how I feel about this.

On one hand, I discovered last fall that I really do enjoy many aspects of the empty nest—the time spent alone with Mitchell, the ability to jaunt off on adult pursuits at will, the neat house, the sense that our space once again belongs to us. But I also know that when Rachel’s not here, I miss her terribly.

But I think the big difference between this January departure and the September one is that all of us are more prepared for what lies beyond the farewell hugs and kisses.

Going into September, Rachel had only the slightest idea of what residence life might bring; and while she was excited about her courses, she couldn’t know for certain that she’d like her new program, her profs, or her fellow students. This term, she’s going back to a familiar room, with a roommate she knows (okay, “knows” might be too strong a word for the Absentee Roomie—she could probably pick her out of a line-up, though). She loves most of her profs, and she excelled at all her courses; and she’s made some good friends, and knows which students are slackers who should never be picked as project partners.

And for me last September, those first three months of the school year loomed ahead like an empty ocean. What lay beyond the horizon? I hadn’t a clue. I’d heard tales of sea-monsters—Grief, Mourning, Panic—and of seductive mermaids—Freedom, Fulfillment, Renewal—but I didn’t know for certain what I might encounter. All I knew was that I knew pretty much nothing.


“Cap’n! Sea monsters off the starboard bow!”

Now, though, I understand a few things much better.

I think the most important thing I’ve learned, though, is that even though our kids no longer live full-time in our house, we’re still their parents. They still need us, we still need them. We still hang out and laugh a lot, talk about issues big and small, and enjoy one another’s company. That doesn’t change, and it never will.

That said, bring on the empty nest! I think I’m ready for it this time.

And now, what about you? Are Michael and Gilly still with you? Inquiring minds want to know!



p.s. It turns out that her departure may be a little slower than anticipated, as she came down with something nasty involving coughing, fever, and general icky-ness on Sunday, the day we were supposed to leave. I’m glad she got it while she was still home, as it wouldn’t have been fun for her if she’d been back in residence; but still. It kind of sucks. I’ll let you know how things unfold, but I expect we’ll be heading out a few days later than expected. xoxo

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