Parenting Young Adults: Empty Next Syndrome, Part 1

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According to tradition, parents (especially mothers) are supposed to be extremely sad when their children leave home. They are said to feel an overwhelming sense of loss, loneliness, purposelessness, feelings of rejection, and worry about their offspring’s welfare—in other words, the “Empty Nest Syndrome.”  From what I can see and have experienced myself, the Empty Nest Syndrome is indeed real. However, it doesn’t seem to afflict every parent who is left behind, and its severity and duration vary widely even among those who do have it. 
      I know I panicked when my first child went to college, and she was only three hours away. Then two weeks later she was home to visit and drop off her dirty laundry, at which point I asked myself what had I been so upset about? Recently, I sat down with five mothers and one very involved father. Here is their first-hand testimony of what it was like for them when their children went off to college.
      It was a blow
      “I felt as though a lung had been removed from my body,” says Kyla Morris. “I thought the worst was saying goodbye to my older daughter in her dorm, but the worst was actually seeing her empty room. That lasted a couple of weeks.” Mal Everhof expected to be separated from her only child one day, but that day came three years sooner than planned. Her academically gifted son wanted to study German, which was not available at his high school but was a featured course at a prep school far from home. Sending him to boarding school at 15 was a wrench for Mal, to put it mildly. “After leaving him, I pulled off the road and sobbed,” she says. “I didn’t want him to feel my grief on top of all his other adjustments, so I held it in as long as I could. Letting him go away so young was a big sacrifice for me as a single mother, but I had made a vow at his birth that I was going to do everything possible for him or this whole motherhood thing wouldn’t be worth it.”
     Elizabeth Chen had time to get used to the idea that her daughter might go to school 3,000 miles away. Her husband took the girl on a tour of colleges during her junior year of high school, and it was clear that she was drawn to the East Coast, where the Chens have family and had visited regularly.  Elizabeth confesses, “She got into a good school and I was proud of her, but it was hard to let go. Of course, I was also sad when I dropped her off at kindergarten for the first time! I feel a real psychological connection to my daughter, and in the beginning I tried to maintain that connection through advice-giving, maybe too much so. I would ask, ‘What classes are you taking, have you registered for them, are you getting together the docs for your student loan?’ like a typical helicopter parent. After all, I had had input throughout her childhood and adolescence about what she needed to do, but once she got to college, she asserted her independence. I’ve chosen to feel not that she’s rejecting me but that she’s growing up.”
     Not everyone suffers
     Unlike Kyla and Elizabeth, Julie Murchison was unaffected by the Empty Nest Syndrome. When I asked her how she felt when her twin sons went off to college, she replied unequivocally, “Great! I felt that my job as a parent was done.” Her husband, Paul, who had been even more involved with the boys than she, said that he, too, was happy when they left for school. “I had wrung every bit I could from their childhood, including all the soccer matches, football practices, science projects, and camping trips known to man,” he says. “I was done. Besides, there had been a progression toward independence every day since they could walk, so I felt confident that by the time they turned 18, they were ready to meet the challenges of their new lives. Then, too, there was always the expectation in our house that the boys would go away to school just as Julie and I had. In the last year we discussed college so much that their actual going was a non-event. It was just time for all of us to move on.”

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     But what if your child doesn’t seem to want to move on—is that even more disquieting? Bronwyn Gayle is frankly surprised that her son chose to attend college, albeit a prestigious one, in their hometown. He continued to live at home, for which she was grateful as it saved them a lot of money, but now, nine months later, he’s still there, working two part-time jobs. “He won’t be able to find the kind of programming position here that he studied for,” she says, “but he doesn’t seem to be looking very hard, either. I worry that I’m making it so comfortable for him at home he won’t want to leave to better himself.  Oh, well, I’m just going to have to take it as it comes because when I ask where he’s applying for jobs, I get that ‘Butt out, Mother!’ look. He used to be an overachiever, having been voted president of his large high school twice, so I have to feel that one day he’ll regain his old get-up-and-go. Then he’ll fly the coop and I’ll have Empty Nest Syndrome, only at a later age!”
     Eventually every parent seems to adjust to the new normal of their adult family, whatever it may be. In a later post we’ll look at the difrent ways they make it work.

More about Parenting Young Adults:
You Again?
Empty Nester Parenting Tips

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