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My Nest is Never Really Empty: What Happens After the Kids Move Out

This fall, COVID-19 willing, my husband and I will launch our youngest of two children into the world. Friends and family keep asking me how I’m feeling about my impending empty nest status. My feelings are mixed, but I don’t think my nest is going to empty itself; it’s merely going to evolve.

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When we launched our oldest child two years ago, there was still plenty of parenting going on. This observation makes people cock their heads and add a perceptible, “tsk,” as if suggesting I’m doing it wrong by continuing to parent once my kids leave home.

A lot of situations come up for young adults learning to make their way in the real world. Situations that require parenting, even when the child is no longer living in the family home. The summer after our daughter left for college, she called me to ask what would happen if she couldn’t check-in for an upcoming hotel reservation right at 4:00 p.m. She read the hotel confirmation email as if it were an appointment. She was unaware that 4:00 p.m. was simply the earliest she could expect to check-in.

That’s just one small example of a moment when my parenting skills were still needed.

There was also an old starter car breaking down halfway between home and college, late in the evening on a Sunday, as the skies began to blacken. There was interpreting an apartment lease and there was the need for cosigners. And there was signing up for utilities and learning to budget for bills.

Young adults flying the nest still need parents willing to teach and guide as they apply for jobs, learn to write cover letters, and perfect resumés. They need advice for sourcing their own healthcare providers, scheduling appointments, and filling prescriptions. They look to their parents for help with changing housing situations and all the minutiae that moving entails.

My nest may be empty, but I’m still parenting because there are internships to vie for and sources of financial aid to inquire about and apply for. There’s teaching them how to cook scallops and what to do about perpetually low tires. There’s homesickness and loneliness to contend with. There are holidays to plan for and school vacations to organize.

So much goes on in the life of a newly launched kid, I couldn’t possibly list it all.

I’m asked to help provide guidance so often that I’ve never felt my daughter’s physical absence from our home. If anything, I feel more involved in her life than I have in years. That’s the statement that earns me the most “tsks” because I’m supposed to be letting go, and she’s supposed to be untethering.

The thing is, we’re doing both that. But the process looks different than what people imagine an “empty nest” should be. The level of parenting changes when a kid leaves home, but it doesn’t stop. It merely evolves.

I’m not responsible for my kids’ meals once they leave my home. Their grades become their own responsibility. After all, they’re no longer minors and any truancy or academic struggles now have consequences no longer under my purview. There are no more required chores or suggested bedtimes.

Things change once my kids are out from under my roof.

Instead, there are multiple life skills and nuances to adulthood that didn’t come up or I didn’t think to cover before. And I’m honored and privileged to be someone my kid can call for help or clarification, to solicit an opinion from or just to tell about their day. Thus I haven’t felt empty—rather, I’ve felt an evolution take place.

So much has been made of the perils of an empty nest.

But I’ve come to the realization that just because much ado is made about a thing, doesn’t mean it’s relegated to being that way for everyone.

The evolving nest will be a myriad of different emotions and realizations for each parent who experiences it. Though clichés and long held dogmas have a way of sticking around, an empty nest doesn’t have to be something to mourn or fear. It’s not a status to be anxious about or fight against.

That I’m still parenting in new and unexpected ways and not feeling empty as a result feels beautiful and fulfilling to me. Showing up for my kids as needed even after they’ve left home will lead to them needing me less and less as the months and years go by. The end result hasn’t been a sudden sense of emptiness, but one of evolution. The phrase “empty nest” simply doesn’t do this new phase of my life justice. And that’s been a comfort to me.

Jodie Utter is the creator of the blog Utter Imperfection. She works to connect our stories so we’ll feel less alone and more at home in our hearts, minds, and relationships. You can connect with her on FacebookInstagram, & Twitter—where she tells the raw truth about life and love.

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