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The Plight (Joy) of the Empty Nester: Youngest Child Leaving For College

The Plight (Joy) of this Empty Nester

by Jane Parent

My third and youngest has graduated high school. And like thousands of other kids, will be leaving in a few short weeks to begin college. Like thousands of other parents, my husband and I will be empty nesters, alone and staring at each other—just the two of us—for the first time in 22 years. For the next several weeks and months, I am braced for the social media onslaught of teary retrospectives with titles like “My Lonely Empty Nest” and “What Happens After You Drop Your Child Off At College,” mourning this rite of passage and the cruel passage of time, articles full of misty, water-colored memories of their beloved children and the way their families were.

This is not going to be one of those articles.

Hooray to Being an Empty Nester!

You know what? I have cherished life with my kids at every stage. I wouldn’t have traded the gift of motherhood for anything in this world. But let’s be real:  kids are destructive, careless, expensive, eating machines who frequently made me want to rip my hair out.

Things I will not miss:

  1. Getting into my car in the morning and finding it has twenty miles left until empty. Again.
  2. Where’s the passenger side mirror on my car? Oh, there it is—on the floor of the garage.
  3. Going to the grocery store three times a week, and still hearing “There’s nothing to eat in this house” at least once a day.
  4. Laundry. Enough said.
  5. The little pile of toenail clippings next to the sweaty socks on the family room coffee table.
  6. Going to get a Milano cookie out of the bag, and finding that the bag is empty but still on the shelf. That’s just cruel.
  7. Going only to restaurants that serve chicken fingers and french fries, so there will be something on the menu for our picky eater.
  8. Having to set a good example. Sometimes I don’t want to go to church on Sunday, and want to curse like a pirate. I don’t wanna eat my broccoli.
  9. Waking up at 2 a.m. (or should I say eventually being able to fall asleep) when the last one is finally home for the night and I can stop worrying about all the ditches on the side of the road in which they could be.
  10. Kitchen trash still in the kitchen, even though I was earnestly, impatiently, emphatically assured it would be carried out to the garage nine hours ago.
  11. Empty toilet paper rolls in every bathroom.
  12. The text that arrives like clockwork at 2 p.m. every afternoon asking “What’s for dinner?”
  13. Going to use my earbuds and finding that they’re gone because a child lost theirs and, you know, needed mine.

And this is by no means a comprehensive list.

From The First To Last Child Leaving For College

When we said goodbye to our firstborn in the parking garage on drop off day, I did the ugly cry “Sophie’s Choice”-style wordless paroxysm of grief. Back home, I cried for weeks. I avoided going upstairs because the sight of his silent, empty bedroom would bring hot, salty tears of grief to my eyes. I’ll admit it: I wallowed and luxuriated in my misery because being really sad must mean that I was an exceptionally good mother. Me, me, ME.

When our second left, it was easier. I missed my shopping and movie best buddy, but hey, Boston was a fun place to go visit her. And it began to feel ridiculously self-indulgent to be morose when they were thriving, enjoying the best years of their young lives, and becoming the mature, responsible adults we always wanted them to be. And I never would have tolerated this kind of display from my kids, either. If they had spent their time and emotional energy being weepy, keening about how much they missed us or being home, I would’ve been appalled, and told them to cut it out and get a grip.

Dealing With The Empty Nest

This time around, I’m ready and I’m pragmatic. Enough with the weepy, bereft mother act. No one has died, or is facing the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. I don’t, in all honesty, want my kids to live at home forever in my basement. I love seeing them engaged and active, studying interesting things, interviewing for jobs, finding apartments. Plus, it’s enormously satisfying to congratulate ourselves on a job well done, launching another child who is ready and eager to leave home. Don’t get me wrong—I would give anything to have just fifteen minutes again with those sweet, slightly sticky, dimpled two-year-old, or seven-year-old versions of my kids. But hanging out with my three newly-minted young adults, who are kinda great companions, is a pretty fair trade.

So what will happen after you drop your last child off at college? Life for empty nesters goes on, and it’s pretty darn good. You text them a couple times a day, and make plans for the next visit. Maybe you get a nicer car, now that your kids aren’t around to wreck it. You can get sushi for dinner. You enjoy your clean, quiet house with your husband, whom you liked before you had kids, and are looking forward to seeing more of, now that all those cross country meets, team dinners, and endless loads of wet towels are over.

And you enjoy the serene certitude of knowing that no one but you will touch that last Milano cookie. It’s all good.

Jane Parent

Jane Parent is senior editor of Your Teen.