Preparing for your child's eventual departure from home takes time, thought and planning. Just like saving for your child's college education, parents owe it to themselves and their child to get the whole family ready for this period of transition.
The idea of the "empty nest" is a common metaphor that focuses on what parents feel when their children grow up and fly away. But Joan Thorndyke of Ashland thinks the phrase "empty nest" places the attention on the parents when it is the child who most needs support and attention. Both parents and children can be affected by the breakup of the nest.
If you're finding it difficult to adjust to your child's absence, the Psychology Today website has some suggestions about how to cope with feelings of loss and sadness.
1. Talk with friends and family about the changes in your life.
2. Buy some pay-as-you-go mobile phone vouchers or prepaid calling cards for your son or daughter so that it is easy for them to keep in touch.
3. Establish a schedule for phone calls and visits.
4. Give your child the space, time and distance to become their own person.
5. Understand that your child will still need you, but that the relationship will change.
6. Explore new ways to create interest and excitement in your life with hobbies, volunteerism, exercise, coursework or career opportunities.
7. Make specific plans for the extra time, money and space that will become available.
8. Be kind to yourself.
By the time Joan's eldest daughter Camilla reached her senior year, Joan and her husband Dan were ready for the next stage of their lives. She says, "You are finishing a certain stage of your life." Joan and Dan had fulfilling jobs and strong community ties and felt prepared for the empty nest.
What they didn't realize was that Camilla wasn't quite ready for the next stage in her life. Joan understood something was terribly wrong when Camilla grew tearful and said, "I can't do this. I can't believe my high school years are over. I'm going to leave my sister. I'm going to leave my home, my town, my friends."
It was two more years before Camilla was ready to go off to school in Washington. "It took away a part of me going through the pain of seeing her go; I was just trying to help her," Joan remembers.
Other children are ready to leave home right away. Caprice and Mark Moran's only child, Jarrett, graduated from St. Mary's in 2006 and went east for college. "He was so much the focus of our attention that he felt he needed to get a little farther away to gain some independence," says Caprice. "He was really ready to leave home."
Jarrett and his parents helped each other prepare for the day that Jarrett would spread his wings. At first it was a week at Southern Oregon University's Academy, and then longer periods away for summer courses and internships. "That was both of our preparation for college," Caprice explains. "It was helpful for him to know what it was like to be away from home and helpful for us figuring out communication and establishing how often we would hear from him."
Even with all their preparation and pride, Caprice feels some regret. "I got very involved in all his activities and I didn't prepare myself; I thought I'd take care of it when he left," she says. "I should have gone back to work sooner."
Mary and Mike Gardiner of Ashland raised two girls — Brittany who went off to college in 1999 and Alexandra who left for school three years later. "Britt was the one who was ready to go, really ready to roll, preparing us," Mary remembers. "She was ready to move on and do other things, excited about what those things were." Alexandra took a little more prodding to go away to college.
Meanwhile, Mary and Mike were preparing themselves to be on their own, carving personal time out of their busy family schedule to keep their adult lives rich and fulfilling when the kids were gone. "There can be a big void there if everything revolves around your kids and you aren't taking care of what your interests are," suggests Mary. As their daughters entered college, Mike and Mary had more time to enjoy their interests in tennis, book clubs, hiking and community service. The pace of their lives shifted.
Raising a child and giving them the strength and skills to succeed, preparing them to spread their wings, is an important task. It's just as important to prepare yourself for the time that your kids do leave home. "For us as parents, our lives changed enormously; they will never be the same," Joan says. "I have no crystal ball. I don't know that we'll transition that smoothly, but I feel that we did our homework, Dan and me, in terms of who we are."