Fall was always odd for me as a parent. From the time my oldest child headed off to kindergarten, there always seemed to be a transition when summer faded.
Some transitions were more dramatic than others. For example, I was the at-home parent when my youngest started school. It was the first time in eight years that I didn’t spend all day with at least one child, and it was more of a shock for me than my daughter. A week later, I was still watching “Winnie the Pooh” alone and calling it research for a children’s book. (On the bright side, I stopped watching “Barney the Dinosaur” immediately.)
So I thought it’d be no big deal last year when my youngest headed off to college. I’d been through kids starting school, middle school, high school, oldest off to college. I was prepared for no children in the house. I specialize in family therapy, for Pete’s sake. Of course I’d handle it well.
Um, no. It felt like “Winnie the Pooh” all over again, only this time, nobody came home at the end of the day. I kept myself busy with work, hobbies, and seeing friends and family, but there was still something missing. One night, I stared at the wall and wondered, “What am I supposed to do now?”
Many of you are going through something similar this fall. How do you get through the transition without going crazy and/or volunteering to be your child’s dorm R.A.?
First, understand that being sad is normal and predictable. You’ve spent two decades raising your children, and seemingly overnight, they’re adults (or they think they are, anyway). You’ll still have a good relationship, but you’ll be sad because that relationship has to change since your child won’t be around all the time.
You’ll also probably feel conflicted because you’ll learn to like the freedom that comes with empty nesting. You won’t be tied down by swim meets, school meetings, your child’s homework, or even worrying about what to make for dinner. You’ll feel a surprising amount of guilt, as if liking that free time means you loved your children less than you thought. Don’t worry – you love your kids just fine. This is just a normal part of them growing up, and it’s ok to enjoy yourself without them.
It’s also normal, especially for stay-at-home parents, to feel like you have no purpose. For years, you’ve defined yourself as a parent, and you’re left wondering who you really are now. That, too, will pass. If you need to jump-start that process, you can find purpose in your career, volunteering, starting projects for which you’ve never had time, or even from just making yourself a priority after all those years of hands-on parenting.
For me, I was able to focus on writing again. I started a monthly column for a local magazine, started blogging for both my family counseling private practice and my writing career, and even wrote another book.
Finally, be patient with yourself. This is a normal stage of life, and how you feel now won’t be how you feel later on. Your children will always need you, even after your relationship changes. You’ll always be an important role model to them, and your opinion will always matter. Trust me – the kids aren’t gone forever.
That reminds me. I’ve got to start cooking. The kids are coming over for dinner. Offer them free food, and they’ll always sprint back to your house.
(Carl Grody, LISW-S, is in private practice at Grody Online Family Counseling based in Columbus, Ohio. Carl has 12 years of experience working with children, teens, families and couples. He’s a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program, and he’s also a columnist for Columbus Parent magazine. If you’re interested in an appointment, please call (614) 477-5565 or schedule directly online at carlgrodylisws.clientsecure.me.)