My youngest graduated this past June. I welled up with tears on and off throughout the ceremony. These were the “happy-sad” kind which you are probably familiar with — tears conjured by a wide range of conflicting emotions.
Graduation this year was not just a milestone for my daughter. It was one for me as well. A good deal of my time over the last 15 years was spent volunteering for our local schools in various capacities. An office at home and a flexible schedule allowed me to be involved in countless ways, as an honor society advisor, PTA president, and booster association president, to name a few. When my daughter reached for her diploma, it marked the end of a chapter in both of our lives.
The months prior to the big day had me thinking about my new role as parent. Does the parenting role change? What is the best way for an empty nester to forge forward? Should one find a new hobby, explore the globe, or clean out the basement?
Your new role
Your role has changed, not ended. Your kids will need you — at some level — even when they’re 40.
“Often the move to college marks the most distinctive change for a child becoming an adult. There is usually a natural pulling away that happens in the teen years to prepare for this move into adulthood, but it still comes as a real shift,” says Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Kim Blackham, and owner and director of Summit View Family Therapy in Winston Salem, N.C.
Allow your child to navigate the world solo without too much interference. Blackham points out, “Kids going away to college need to know their parents have confidence in their ability to make it on their own.”
She advises parents to provide counsel, but to be careful about offering an abundance of unsolicited advice.
“Sometimes unsolicited advice communicates a lack of confidence in their ability to solve their own problems.”
Be aware that your child is used to setting his own rules while living away from home.
“It’s key to recognize that when your child returns home during breaks, they are returning as an adult, not as a child.”
Blackham says that college-age children should respect being back in their parents’ home, but parents need to be cognizant of the natural shift in the relationship.
I’ve found that explaining expectations works best. For instance, if I ask my son to text me when he gets back to the dorm after a visit home, I might couple this with, “Humor me. If I know you are back safely, I can continue with my day.”
A lifestyle change
Since the daily responsibilities of parenting have waned, you’ll have more time to delve into those things you’ve put off time and again.
For couples, there can be a renewed energy to their marriage. Dr. Donald K. Freedheim, professor emeritus of psychology at Case Western Reserve University, explains, “When all the children finally graduate from high school, a life adjustment needs to take place. When the kids are out of the everyday picture, it is time to renew what was lost when they were in the home.”
Dr. Freedheim says this as an opportunity for romance and spontaneous activities. He adds that if the effort is made, the consequence is often an enriched marriage.
However, if the effort is made, you will likely find a renewed excitement about your relationship and a chance to do those things you hadn’t had time for in the past.
My husband and I have already made several plans to do those things we didn’t have time for while running to swim meets or attending jazz concerts. Of course, there are occasional college events to attend as well. It truly is a joy to see that familiar smile on your child’s face when he spots you in the crowd.
Tips and Tales
“My husband and I loved having an empty nest! It allowed us to rekindle as a couple.”
Cheryl Frazier-Woods, Poughkeepsie, NY
“You may offer counsel, but don’t be hurt if it’s rejected. It can be harder than when they were living at home.”
John Keller, Earlville, NY
Note from the author
Now that my youngest has graduated from high school, my writing career will be taking another direction. I wanted to let my readers know that it has been my pleasure exploring the teen years with all of you — my fellow parents and hundreds of experts in the field of adolescent development. I have learned so much during this journey. I would like to thank the hundreds of parents who sent in tips since the column’s inception in 2009. I would also like to thank my editors. Your professionalism and guidance have meant the world to me.
Myrna Beth Haskell is a feature writer, columnist, and author of, “Lions And Tigers And Teens: Expert Advice and Support for the Conscientious Parent Just Like You” (Unlimited Publishing LLC, 2012). For details, visit www.myrnahaskell.com.