A large seashell brought back from Cuba by his aunt, a few high school textbooks collecting dust, a fencing sword from a short-lived elementary school hobby, scattered trinkets from our family holidays… these fragments from his childhood were all that my son left behind in his now-empty bedroom. Yes, the day finally arrived—my son moved out.
No more of his friends dropping by the house for pizza before going out, no more dinners for the three of us in front of the TV, no more backpacks and piles of shoes waiting to trip us in the hallway. Independence, responsibility, adulthood…these weighty, significant words now somehow reflect the person whom I can still so clearly picture learning to walk.
How does one deal with this kind of inevitable separation? I, for one, found myself looking to Google for advice on how to balance too much with not enough in the new relationship that was developing, adult to adult, with our no-longer-a-child child. I thought about how, when I was young, my grandmother did the laundry and ironing every week for my mother’s family of five, held multigenerational dinners every Sunday, watched us after school on Wednesdays and could count on at least one call a day from my mother. When I grew up, I carried on that tradition, phoning my mother every day and visiting once a week. So I made sure to continue those customs with the next generation, too— Sunday dinners, open, honest conversation and regular check-ins. At times, I felt a bit uneasy, wondering if I was putting too much pressure on our new, developing bond—risking pushing our son away rather than bringing us all closer.
That’s when my Google search began anew, now with keywords and phrases such as “toxic mom” and “How to tell if you’re being intrusive.” I finally found what I was looking for in the comments section of an online parental-support group. That eloquent mom shared how her grown kids now phone her simply because they want to, invite her to casual parties and even go on vacation with her.
Her secret: Focus on the quality—not the quantity—of conversations, cut out the You should’s and If I were you’s, stop looking for teachable moments, lighten up on the parental expectations, listen without judging, be there without getting in the way. Though so simple in retrospect, this blueprint can certainly pose a challenge for parents. But in the end, even though this phase marks the child reaching towards adulthood, it’s also an opportunity for us, as parents, to grow.
For all the other empty nesters among you: How did you handle this chapter in your family’s life? I can’t wait to read your stories!