By Heather Riley Harter
As we approach the middle of summer, many families are already shifting their thinking to the back-to-school season that is all too rapidly approaching. While parents of younger children turn thoughts to crayons and glue sticks, many parents of college students are preparing to outfit a dorm room or apartment for their young adults. And for some parents, this August’s move to campus will signify a new chapter in their own lives.
Welcome to the Empty Nest!
My family entered this new reality last August as my husband and I—with our SUV and a rented minivan packed to the rafters—moved our youngest 384 miles to the University of Akron in Ohio. I had watched via Facebook as my friends had gone through this rite of passage over the years, liking their posts as they set up dorm rooms and said their goodbyes. We had already experienced the college drop-off with our two other children. But this was our youngest, and as she set off with her goals and dreams six hours away from home, our family dynamic shifted. Good-byes said, photos taken, tears shed, we pulled out of the dorm parking lot and left her to experience everything she had prepared for.
Empty nesting has taken on a status. USA Today has held “empty nest” photo shoots over the past two years, showing how parents celebrate the accomplishment of raising children and sending them off to college and career. The accompanying articles report on couples contemplating their own dreams and wish lists that had been put on hold by parental responsibilities and showcasing their plans as their lives move forward without children in the home.
The USA Today articles echo one important sentiment: Congratulations parents! You did it!!
For my family, the first few weeks after that last drop-off didn’t change much. Our daughter often traveled while in high school, sometimes to sports camps or service trips that were ten to fourteen days at a time. I now joked with family and friends who called to see how I was doing that, except for her bedroom being emptier than when she went on trips, we were used to being alone for periods of time. Cue the honeymoon reboot—it was a nice change of pace to be just a couple again.
But there was also a bigger shift in our role as parents. Suddenly, we were no longer directly responsible for the day-to-day care of any of our children.
There were no more late nights waiting to make sure they got home safely. One of our house rules while our children were in high school was—under the rare circumstance that we were not awake when they got home—that they text “I’m home” when they returned. My daughter did that during her first week in college, and I needed to remind her that now we didn’t know when she was out so she did not have to report in any more.
No longer could we monitor her nutrition and food choices. I worried, since she was a student athlete, that she would get all her meals from the Chik-fil-A on campus and binge on chips and cookies in her room at night while studying. One of her teammate’s mothers shared her angst when she learned that her son’s diet consisted of Spaghetti-Os and frozen pizza rolls. And while some of our daughter’s choices may not have been what I would have liked her to eat, she survived.
What we gained as each of our children left the home was a new role—that of counselor and confidant. Suddenly, our children realized that while living in at home they had a lot of things handled for them. So now it seemed that our children needed us more as they negotiated their new roles as independent adults. They needed guidance as they opened bank accounts and credit cards, signed leases to move off campus, looked for that perfect summer job or internship to help advance their career plans. Since she left for college, I talk to my daughter every day—often multiple times a day. She is negotiating her new life in a new town but knows that we are still her biggest cheerleaders and supporters.
It is a milestone to celebrate.
Now to plan that bucket list trip to Australia my husband and I have always dreamed about.
Photo by TEH.
Heather has been a marketing and development professional for over 20 years in both corporate and not-for-profit organizations. She received her BA in Communications from Thomas Edison State University in New Jersey and is currently a MS student at Franklin University in Columbus, Ohio, while also taking classes at Lehigh University. She has been a contributor to numerous publications, websites, and newspapers. A busy mom of four grown children (living in four different states), she and her husband Joseph enjoy traveling, gardening, and watching their youngest daughter compete for the University of Akron’s rifle team (Go Zips!). Their family also volunteers with many veterans-based organizations.