When the Kids Leave Home, Who Will I Be?

For the last 24 years, I have been a stay-at-home mom. Our youngest is leaving for college in the fall, at which point I will become “an empty nester.” I know the transition hasn’t happened yet, but I am bracing myself for the inevitable reality of our quiet, empty house, and the dinner table set for two, rather than five. I feel very sad about my kids moving on, and yet I know I should be proud that they are successfully leaving the nest! So much of my identity is defined by my role as a mom, that I don’t know what I will do with my time after my youngest is gone. Who will I be?

What a valuable question to ask yourself at this critical juncture! Thank you for bringing up this important issue. I am Caryn, an experienced family therapist with Emily Cook Therapy, and I have helped many clients deal with the reality you are describing.

I get it – after investing so much time, energy, sweat and tears raising your children to be independent, productive adults, it’s common to find yourself at the graduation ceremony with a bevy of different emotions– you may feel tremendous pride and happiness watching your child reach this milestone, but profound sadness, loss & anxiety can come into the picture as well. You knew this moment would arrive, but may be wondering where the time has gone. It seems like only yesterday that you were singing lullabies and swaddling your babies in their blankets.

Although the term “empty nest” is commonly used, it is not my favorite. I find it to be a depressing, negative way of viewing this new phase in one’s life. Just to reframe a bit- as much as the launching of your children can feel quite difficult emotionally, it can also be an exciting time, when there are countless opportunities for new growth. Suddenly there is time to try that dance class, write that novel, or take that trip to Thailand that you and your spouse have been dreaming about all these years. In a sense, life becomes a new frontier of possibility, and you can reinvent yourself in ways you might never have considered before this moment. You can also view this new chapter as a gift to your marriage; being able to nurture your relationship by spending quality, uninterrupted time together will ultimately strengthen your connection and intimacy as a couple!

It may take quite some time before you are able to get your bearings in this new frontier. So in the meantime, here are a few suggestions to help ease this transition as you launch your last child:

**Honor your feelings as they surface. Give yourself time to process this huge transition and all the feelings that come along with it.

**Share your feelings with close friends, family, and community. It is important that you do not isolate yourself from others, as this can be a lonely time. Seek out the support of an individual therapist who can be a valuable resource for you as you navigate this major change. At Emily Cook Therapy, you will find experienced, effective therapists who will provide you a safe, nonjudgmental space to explore your feelings and to wonder about this next chapter in your life by considering questions like these:

  • What do I want more of in my life?
  • What makes me feel happy? Fulfilled?
  • What did I enjoy doing (pre-kids) that I might want to return to?
  • What role do I presently occupy that I might want to expand?

**Discuss these questions with your spouse or partner, either in the context of your own home, or in Bethesda, MD therapy office with one of our experienced marriage counseling specialists:

    • What expectations do we have for our relationship as we move into this new phase of our life?
    • What new/ favorite activities are we excited about trying together?
    • What can we plan right now that will get us excited for the future?
    • What makes us feel connected to each other, and how do we create more of that feeling in our daily lives?

**Be patient with yourself as you redefine your goals and roles. Remember this is unchartered territory and everyone travels this course in their own time and in their own way. Avoid comparing your transition with others.

**Trust that you have done your job to the best of your ability, and that your kids have the tools they need to be successful!

In closing, I want to offer you this inspirational quote from Madeline Levine, a New York Times columnist:

“Gracefully and gradually, we must eventually give up our front and center position in their lives, learn to be quieter, to give fewer answers and to ask more questions. Our children’s independence is a reminder of how much we had to give and all that we have accomplished. It is a pleasure to remember that it is not a form of abandonment but an expression of a job well done — and is something to keep in mind as we move back into the center of our own lives, in ways that will make our children proud.”

This post was written by Caryn Malkus, licensed marriage and family therapist at Emily Cook Therapy in Bethesda, MD.