The Empty Nest

You've waited almost 18 years for this day. Your son or daughter is proudly off at college. You've been through the talk about independence, have ensured there's enough funds in her debit card account to start her off, and have unloaded your car of the extra-long twin sheets, flip-flops for the community showers, and the big-store-size bottle of aspirin.

The settling-into-college period was eventful, busy and a little chaotic, so much so that you hadn't had time to acknowledge the nagging pit in your stomach or the fact that you've been hallucinating about her riding a tricycle or losing her very first tooth for the past week now.

"Often change affects us emotionally, before we can handle it logically," explains John Baker, a leadership expert and author of the newly released book, READY Thinking - Primed For Change. "Recognize that you will need some time." Baker's advice is to let the emotions flow - express what you're feeling, and surround yourself with support: family, friends, perhaps someone who is experiencing a similar event with the departure of their child. And when those waves of nostalgia wash over you? "Take solace in the future changes you will experience in you child's life and how the miracle of growth will continue," he says.

Hovering over the (empty) nest?

Pegina Echevarria was shocked to feel inklings of empty-nest syndrome when her daughter left for school. "I had written a five-year plan for my professional life so that when she left for college, I would be able to take advantage of the freedom of the empty nest." What Pegina didn't count on was how hard it would be for her to let go. She soon found herself over-parenting from afar.

"I struggled when I received the phone calls about the nightmare roommate, the way she perceived people treating her and how difficult it was for her to get help for her emotional distress," she recalls. "Super Mom took over: I called her resident advisor, the dorm direction, the first-year dean. I had always prided myself on raising independent kids. For years I looked forward to my freedom, then look at me!"

Pegina pushed past her 'helicopter parent' status by putting things in perspective. "Understand that your child will cry, whine, suffer and grow." Rediscovering yourself and reconnecting with your spouse definitely helps. "Identify your own dreams and go after them. In Pegina's case, it was taking up swimming, adding sightseeing tours to her business trips, and taking classes with her husband.

Ditch the "Mom" label

According to Baker, one of the best methods to deal with empty-nest syndrome is to "re-label" yourself. "You've been consumed with being a 'parent.' Now you can re-connect as a 'spouse,' re-engage as a 'friend,' reinvigorate your career as a 'professional.'"

Marsha Sims, a single mom with three sons in college, started to look for things she enjoyed outside of children, specifically goals she'd buried from the before-the-kids days. "I always wished I knew how to dance, I wanted to continue piano lessons, and I wanted to learn how to cook better. Now that my sons are all grown, I dance three to four nights a week, practice the piano daily, and took some raw food preparation classes."

Silvana Clark and her husband, whose 18-year-old daughter is heading to Baylor University this fall, plan to cope with empty nest by running away, RV and all. "We love traveling, so we'll simply travel full time for the next few years. We're going to rent out our house and simply hit the road. There's really nothing to hold us in this community where we've lived for 25 years. Our daughter can track us down wherever we are in the country during her breaks."

A digital hug

Many parents have turned gone digital to rid themselves of impending empty-nest depression. For Mary McPhail whose daughter Mackenzie just finished her freshman year at Emerson College in Boston. Mass., iChat was a techno-blessing. "Even though we were 1,000 miles away, I could 'see' my daughter in her dorm room and with her friends, check out her new haircut, see her finished school projects, and assess her mood. Seeing each other is key to not missing each other (too much, anyway)."


Margaret King, who has two daughters at colleges more than two hours away, chuckles at the term 'empty nest.' "At first I thought that I would really miss them, but with cell phones, text messaging and email, who knew they were gone?!" she exclaims. "Really, I did miss them, but we did develop a new kind of relationship with our children." Margaret and her husband now look forward to September when they are free to do what they want, when they want. "Don't get me wrong, we love our children and they are our first priority, but they need to make their own mark on the world."

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Comments on "How to cope when your child goes away to college"

Rafael Fernandez April 01, 2014 | 8:02 AM

Ok so i'm not a single mom, but i am a single dad, been raising them since my oldest was 6 on my own. She is the one that is leaving this year, and we have an amazing relationship. It almost feels like a huge part is tearing from me. Though i am very close to all my kids, she and i have a special bond. They say that married parents cope with it better, because they have each other. If your a single parent, you are not alone, i don't know how I'm going to deal with it yet, i still have 3 more years before ALL of them leave i guess, but i tell ya it hurts like hell. I'm a guy and i broke down crying on her last stage performance in high school lol.

zeyna March 18, 2014 | 12:14 PM

He's leaving in August and he's decided to live with his father to spend more time with him until he actually lives to college. This still has my head snipping, this was not part of the plan. What happened? I was trying to get used to the fact that August was around the corner, but I wasn’t ready for him leaving before then. I can’t be mad at him for making a logical decision, for thinking of his other siblings, but selfishly, what about me? I must confess is been over four weeks that I can report I can now live again. I felt like my life was on hold, not seeing him everyday made me wonder if he was eating right (mind you he’s a football player, measuring 6”1, approx 210 lbs.) Did he want to return back home, should I call or text, should I invite myself over? So many questions and emotions unanswered. Finally, I got myself off the floor, wiped those tears and began living again, in hopes that if my son needed anything from me, he’ll know exactly where to find me. My faith was tested; my emotions got the best of me. I will always be mom and he will forever be my son, letting go is God’s way of reminding me that I can’t control everything and that I must fully rely on Him. Let go and let God!

Leanne January 22, 2014 | 6:17 PM

In Australia our kids don't tend to move away to go to University. I live in Melbourne where there are 3 or 4 excellent Unis on our doorstep. My daughter has just been offered a full scholarship to the University of Tasmania - 2 hours by plane and 12 by ferry. Whilst I'm thrilled for her, my heart is breaking to see her go. It's always only been her twin sister, her and me and I feel like there'll be a huge hole in the family. My teaching contract expired so I don't have a job and everything is in a state of mental chaos. I've looked on American sites because there's just nothing to help cope in Australia. Thanks for the stories - they help.

Annie January 18, 2014 | 1:40 PM

My daughter is a junior at a college 3.5 hours away and my son in his freshman year also about 3.5 hours away in the other direction. While I adore my children, I realize it is their childhood I have mourned aside from missing the day-to-day interaction. That small child, middle school child, and high school child that was is gone and an adult (somewhat) is what replaces that. This is what we've been getting them ready for their entire lives, but it is so hard to let them go and really grow up. To all of you who are so very sad and confused at your child pulling away within those first few days and weeks away just understand that they need to acclimate to their new environment. They are excited and nervous and trying to fit in. They don't need the pressure of having to console you too. I speak from experience since it was a knife through my heart when my daughter (we've always been so close) told me the first few days away that we "really didn't need to communicate every day". By Thanksgiving she was counting down the days to spend a week at home! Our role now is to provide support and guidance on a different level (oh and provide $$ too!). Your children are not children anymore, but they still love you. Just give them a chance to live on their own without hovering and nagging and they will appreciate you and the home you gave them that much more. Good luck to you and success to your kids!

Donna S November 28, 2013 | 10:09 PM

Thank God there are others out there like me. My daughter's been in college two semesters 9 hours away. All I can say is it DOES feel like a death. If I had known that I was going to feel this way, I would have never encouraged her to go...There are other colleges near home that would have been more manageable. Sadly, my daughter rarely calls and if I call her she lets me know she is busy. I hate this stage of life and can't wait for her to move back home...if she decides to move back home...

Mrs. C September 15, 2013 | 5:58 PM

Wow,what a shock. It has been 16 days since my son left for college and life is so different. We too like others had a close relationship, or so I thought. He would talk to me when he came home from work, or theater or wherever. I felt we were close and now i feel like he is deliberately avoiding me. I read an email from an old school person and called him on it and he said ....I am living my own life. Has my world been a lie for the past 18 years and I didn't know it. He is my only child and my heart hurts so much. All I want is for him to talk to me once in a while. In this day of technology he doesn't even text, facebook or email. Why? It has made me mad and mean and I am so tempted to tell him to pay for his own tuition. What should I do. Please help.

Andy August 26, 2013 | 9:55 AM

I always thought when the day came to drop our first born off at college that it would be my wife who'd be the most emotionally impacted. Wrong! I won't repeat a lot of the things others have mentioned but the process of delivering and leaving our son at a distant college has been devastating to me. I feel a huge sense of loss and am baffled. I realize now that I was in a state of denial and frankly ill prepared for the almost instant change in our family dynamic (we have two younger kids still at home) and the very taciturn communication we get (at least we get some huh?). I feel for all the posters here, hopefully you have all managed to overcome the raw emotions and emptiness and have adapted to the reality that we have all successfully raised smart kids who are now becoming adults.

Heather August 21, 2013 | 5:43 AM

My middle child n only girl leaves for college in 2days, I'm a wreck!it came upon us so quick. Our oldest moved out recently n we have first grand baby on the way and now daughter who takes care of me leaving, I'm disabled, feel like life upside down.glad I'm not alone!

Carol August 20, 2013 | 11:21 PM

I moved my middle son(oldest still lives at home)to our local college dorms and I could not have been happier and prouder. I never thought communication would be an issue since we lived close. We have always had a great relationship and he and I would talk for couple hours a night sometimes after he came home from work or out with friends. Now that he is at college he refuses to answer the phone, call me or see me. I am hurt beyond belief. He has also blocked me from seeing fun, nice pics he posts on Facebook.(not ones with girls or bad stuff) Why? What did I do to deserve this? I know he needs to be independent but is a 2 minute phone call too much to ask? I never expected this from him and I miss him so much and I feel our relationship is ruined. I have no family nearby, my husband is working in another country for another 10 months, my oldest has aspbergers and only talks when he needs something and my youngest wants to go into the military or away to college next year. I feel very alone and don't understand how he can just cut me off so cruelly.

Denise June 07, 2013 | 1:46 AM

I too will be dropping my son off soon to college. The first one to go, my first baby. I cry everyday and be us still home. I cry when I hear his favorite songs or I am cooking his favorite foods...if I cry now how on earth will I make it when he's away? I have no support, everyone thinks I'm a big baby. I've been blessed to be a stay at home mom for 17 years. Being a mom is all I know how to I crazy for thinking of taking an antidepressant to get through this?

NGA May 29, 2013 | 7:39 AM

Oh my GOD! I am SO SO glad something isn't wrong with me and I'm not alone. But I feel like I have nothing to be sad about. My son is going to college in town, but will be living on campus. He is the oldest of four boys. I just love him so much and he is so much fun and his friends are so much fun. His brothers love him and they are feeling sad. It's just a big transition for all of us. I can't stop crying. Graduation is this weekend and I don't want to go because I don't want people to see me cry like a baby. All I think about is when he was little and needed me and now he won't. I am excited for him because I remember how exciting of a time it was for me. But I just didn't expect to be so so very sad. So heartbroken to see my first baby leave. :(

Janice April 06, 2013 | 3:38 PM

The hardest part for me has been the fact that the time is here... it's time for my youngest to leave the nest. It has always been something so far out in the future and something that is years away. And now I am having to deal with it. Can't believe how fast time has flown by. My baby is leaving across the state more than 6 hours away and I am heartbroken. I can't even seem to make plans because nothing sounds as fulfilling as taking care of my own son. It is going to be so quiet and boring without him here and without the chaos and commotion that having a highschooler brings. It is worse than I thought it was going to be and he isn't even gone yet. I cannot even imagine the day we drop him off and coming home to an empty house. Does anyone have any advice how to deal with it? Is it better to stay so busy you don't have time to grieve, or is it better to get it all out and cry til there's no more tears? How does anyone find things to do that have meaning? Geez I'm already dreading that awful day when he leaves.

Phyllis Edson February 26, 2013 | 6:36 PM

My oldest leaves for college in a few months. I can't imagine how much I will miss him. But, he's self-reliant, independent and smart. I'm sure he'll do better than I will.

Kathleen January 13, 2013 | 3:49 PM

My son left the first of September to go to school 3 hrs away. I was so busy planning my mom and dad's 60th wedding anniversary celebration I didn't miss him so much. I was going all out for my parents milestone anniversary and was featuring a movie of their life so I was really busy. The party was the first week of December and was a huge success. I saw my son over the break and now that he's gone back to school and the party is over with, I miss him so much. He's my only child and I am divorced and not in a relationship. And to make matters worse I have 5 cats. Now I feel like the old cat lady alone with only the love of her cats. lol I am sure I will feel better soon. The point I was trying to make is to be busy doing something you love, maybe something you used to love but gave up when you first had kids, like skiing for example. And you can always volunteer. I think now is the time to meet the man of my dreams:)

Anthony August 19, 2012 | 7:07 PM

Where has the time went? Both my children grew up so quickly and now are both beginning a new phase of their lives. My son is in his third year and daughter leaving in a few days. Empty nest is just about here and I have mixed emotions. Sure I want them to grow and develope into successful human beings but a part of me doesn't want them to leave. My heart is broken but don't want to be selfish and tell them how I feel. I am only wishing that time will help heal my broken heart and make our family stronger when they are home.

cherie August 18, 2012 | 8:45 PM

my son just left for law school today. i have been a basket case all day and trying so hard not to let him see that i am so upset. he has gone away to school for the past 4 years but he was only 45 mins away. This school is 3 hours away. My other daughter who is 20 also left for school on friday, my 25 year old, who is a teacher got her own place last may. I still have my youngest home, she is 15 and going to be a sophmore but I am having an awful time dealing with the rest of them leaving. I have been crying all day and saying good bye to him was the worse. I tried not to let him see me cry and told him I would be better once he left and that it was just the good bye that was bad but I haven't stopped crying since. How do I ever get over missing them? I am a divorced mom and they are my life.

karen thompson August 16, 2012 | 5:22 PM

There is a silver lining and it is called..time. You have time for you and your husband. A GOOD thing. But that being said the SAD of LOSS for the old crazy life when everyone was at home NEVER goes away..You just get busy (hopefully) and ignore it much of the time. I have three children ..two married and on their own with children and thankfully one still in college ..a boy. He is my hope. The other two are near..but VERY wrapped up in their own should be. But it makes me feel sad. The last one seems more concerned about his parents, now...but he is not married. I am enjoying it while I have it. Transitions from Mommy to not-needed-Mommy are hard. I wish someone had handed me a pay book years ago. So I think..after all these oldest left home in is just a one day at a time thing....some good..and some bad. BUSY is the KEY.

Judy August 07, 2012 | 12:55 PM

My heart hurts!! My youngest of four and only girl goes to college this week. We are so close....and I know will continue to be, but everything will change. I know in my head it is supposed to, but my heart still hurts.

Lou July 23, 2012 | 6:20 AM

I am so relieved to read these posts because I thought it was just me who behaved like this. I'm in UK and my son (14) has gone abroad with his father and wife for a holiday and I am so bereaved I can barely see to type. The agony of his departure is unbearable and he is only gone for 2 weeks! Wait for me to return when he starts college!

Terry May 31, 2012 | 3:47 PM

My daughter will be leaving in August for college. She seems alot more ready for this than I am. I tried to talk her into staying a year hear and going to a nearby college, but she said if she did that she would never leave. I don't like driving the highways, so I'm concerned how often I will actually be able to see her. I plan on getting a web-cam so I can see her while we talk. This house is going to be empty and making it through the day (nights too) are going to be a big challenge. I've forgotten what my intrests are so I feel lost. I hope that after awhile, I start to see the "positive" in all of this and that there is actually a future that I'm interested in.

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