I’ll admit it: I’m a planner. I prefer to be on time, prepared and as in control as possible in this otherwise out-of-control world.
So it’s no surprise that I started sizing up this empty nest thing a couple of years ago, quizzing parents who had lived through it, eye-balling the occasional blog post on the topic, and partaking in impromptu therapy sessions over drinks with friends. I even started a mental list of all the exciting possibilities that would unfold upon entering the empty nest. I had a plan and I was prepared.
However, two months into life as an empty nester, I’m here to tell you that my plan has failed. Home is not the Zen-like, foot-loose-and-fancy-free environment I had envisioned. I didn’t turn that upstairs room into an art studio and we haven’t had a single party. Heck, no one’s even come over for a burger. Our home has gone from a vibrant, bustling center of activity to some sort of strange haunted house. The quiet is creepy, the level of cleanliness unnerving, and I wander around like a restless spirit, vacillating between Netflix and my library book.
What went wrong? Misguided planning. Learn from my mistakes and consider the following advice in order to develop a new and improved plan for your empty nest.
1. Expect to miss your kids. I think I was led astray by those parents who said they popped open the champagne when their final child left for college. I was actually terribly sad (my husband was even worse) and I felt like there must be something wrong with me. Since then, I’ve read several great articles that explained why it’s actually OK to grieve when your kids leave the house, one of my favorites being from Rob Lowe. This gave me great relief—I mean, if Rob Lowe could be a mess, so could I.
2. Fight for your right…to do nothing. I found myself getting anxious about the fact that I was doing absolutely nothing with my new-found free time. But then I had an epiphany and realized there’s nothing wrong with lying low, vegging out, binge watching, or spending Saturday night under the covers with a good read. For crying out loud, as parents, we’ve been running at a break-neck pace for the last 20 years, so maybe finally coming to a full stop – and staying there for a bit – is a really healthy thing to do.
3. Find your way back into the community. I was never in the running for PTO mom of the year, so I never - EVER - expected to miss the school community. While volunteering and attending school functions was not my favorite thing, I was steadfast about it anyway, and now here I am missing it. You see, not only do your kids go away, so does the whole fabric of people and activities that went along with them. So make sure you set up some small way to stay connected to the community. One mom I know said she fully anticipated feeling this way and took the necessary steps to become an elementary school mentor while her youngest was a senior in high school. Now there’s a planner.
4. Let mess happen. One of the things I’d been looking forward to for a long time was restoring order and organization to my home once the kids were out. It was my standard jokey line when people asked how I was feeling about my impending empty nest: “Hey, at least the house will be clean!” Wrong again. In reality, a too-clean house is depressing. You need to see signs of life, so leave the dishes in the sink until morning and let your husband leave his shoes in the middle of the living room. Trust me, it’s a good thing.
5. Spread out. Remember that finished basement or attic room you invested in so your kids had a place to hang out with their friends? Guess what, those are your rooms, too. Leaving them uninhabited and squeaky clean turns them into stark reminders of your kids’ absence. So let your hair down and go watch Game of Thrones in their space. Start living in your entire house and the empty nest won’t seem quite as empty anymore.
Above all, go easy on yourself. The empty nest transition is truly an individual experience, so take the time to sort through it and find what works for you. By that time, everyone will be home for the holidays and you’ll happily return to the familiar comforts of noise, stress and exhaustion once again.
Maria Patterson is RISMedia's Executive Editor.