Mortarboards have been thrown, transcripts sent, dorm walls measured, orientation trips planned. All set. All good to go. Congrats on the success, good luck on the next chapter and, wo-hoo, we just couldn’t be prouder. It’s time to let go and launch the child and all I know is…my very cool roommate is moving out and I’m going to miss him.
There are various Rites of Passage we go through in life: Teething, Puberty, Anxious 30’s, Mid-Life (Crisis or Otherwise), Menopause (male & female), Damn 50’s, Really Old and, finally, Facing Death. They all have capital letters. And each comes with an unwritten guide that gets us through the shoals with instruction and reassurance that whatever we’re thinking/feeling/experiencing is simply part of the phase, hang on, we’re all going through it, nothing to be afraid of.
For example, no matter what’s going on with a child during the pre-mastication era, no matter what symptoms or behaviors, no worries, it’s “Just Teething.” Fevering madly? Teething. Screaming for dear life? Teething. Eating dirt with enthusiasm? Teething. And Puberty? Every whine-fest, meltdown, door-slam, anxiety-attack, hair-flinging stomp out of the kitchen is ascribed to the unavoidable transition from childhood to hormones. God forbid a real crisis is in bloom, we’re convinced it’s “Just Puberty.” A few decades later we follow with another version of the same…except with the added burden of being closer to Facing Death. That would be Menopause with all its sweaty, mood-swinging confusion. Of course, there are also the phases of Marriage and Parenthood. Not everyone will go through these but most will and most who experience Parenthood will ultimately face the classic Rite of Passage known as Empty Nest Syndrome, ENS. Let’s pull that one out of the pack.
It’s a worthy topic this time of year when yet another fresh batch of graduating 18-year-olds and their beleaguered parents are faced with this unavoidable and monumental transition. It might be instructional to break it down. Because here’s the truth: like all other phases of life, all other Rites of Passage – whether teething, teening, or reluctantly senioring – None Of It Is the Same for All Of Us. No advice, no analysis, no remedy applies unanimously. We’re All Going Through Our Own Version. Of Everything. You may be gleefully booking your cruise for September or planning that first post-child remodel on the house, but I’m not. I’m dealing with the fact that I had a very cool roommate for 18 years and now he’s moving out. And I’m going to miss him.
This may seem like a weird analogy, perhaps an overly morbid one, but there’s something here akin to How We Deal With Death. It’s no secret that everyone grieves differently and pretty much everyone struggles with how to talk to grieving folk. When my father died, I was struck by how off-putting I too often found the well-meaning person who’d ask how old he was (72) only to respond, “Well, at least he lived a nice long life.” My thought: not really. 72 seems a tad young to me. And whatever, I don’t care if he was 97, he was still my father and he’s still dead and I’m still sad. Or when they’d hear he died in his sleep and would say, “Well, at least he died peacefully,” and I’d want to holler, “So what?? He died and I’m really sad and that comment doesn’t make me feel any better!” I learned by subjective experience that the only safe thing to say to a person suffering a loss is: “I’m so sorry to hear about your loss.” If you know the deceased, say something personal and authentic like: “Your Dad was a really great guy…I liked him a lot.” That sort of thing is always appreciated…too many people are afraid to actually talk about the person who died and the grieving party likes nothing better. But the point is, don’t say anything that smacks of generic, patronizing Guidebook Speak; it doesn’t help.
What, you may be thinking, does any of this have to do with Empty Nest Syndrome? A lot, actually. Because ENS is, quite simply, about loss. And like Death and all these other Rites of Passage, it’s completely and utterly unique for each person and requires a certain wisdom in response. May I suggest a few very subjective pointers?
1. Don’t tell me “It’s his time to fly…you just have to let him go.” I already know that. Don’t insult my intelligence or imply inordinate neediness on my part by making the point. No one wants him to fly more than I do. Nor is anyone more aware that it’s time to let go. Just say, “Oh, honey, I understand…you’re going to miss him…it’ll get better.” That’s all that’s needed.
2. Refrain from: “You’ll need to find some new things to focus on, to keep yourself busy and distracted after he leaves.” No, I don’t. I have plenty to do. I was busy and distracted while he was here and I’ve still got all my projects, work, husband, friends, hobbies, household tasks, creative endeavors, etc. He was hardly ever around anyway so it’s not about filling time. It’s just that I’m going to miss him. Ask me how he’s doing in college and come with me to a movie.
3. Try to avoid: “You’ll be surprised how nice it’ll be when you don’t have to do his laundry or look at his messy room anymore.” That’ll be surprising? I’ve been looking forward to that for years. But frankly, regardless of dirty clothes or the bomb site that is his room, I’ve always loved knowing he was down the hall, ready to wake up and make me laugh, help me with my website or talk to me about his girlfriend. If you know me, you’ll understand why I might be found napping on the well-made bed in his empty room every once in a while. Don’t call the shrink…it’s my own form of therapy.
4. Don’t bother with: “But he’ll come home for breaks and summers, right?” We all know that once the family system embraces the Initial Departure, it’s never quite the same as Before They Left. We can’t pretend. We’ve all got to adjust, you can just say it.
5. And PLEASE, do not send articles from Psychology Today that analyze ENS and suggest therapy or herbs or calming pharmaceuticals. I’m not having a breakdown; my kid is just leaving home.
Parenthood is one of the few relationships that comes with planned obsolescence. We go into it fully knowing we’ve got to leap now and let go later. There’s no other such deal in life: we get married and the plan is till death do us part. It doesn’t always work out but that’s the idea…we aren’t typically required to give it up at a preordained time. Same with friends; we make a great friend and there is absolutely no reason to believe we can’t keep them through the dotage years. A loving pet is under our feet and in our beds until the very end.
But a child? We get them only for a while. We know that this one relationship, this special, amazing, unique and glorious relationship, is going to change and develop and transform every minute of every day and in about 18 years time, will naturally evolve away from us in a way that is inevitable and irreversible. It’s the Circle of Life, the Coming of Age, the Passing of the Mantle. It’s perfect and painful at the same time.
But know this: Most of us suffering from ENS need no advice. No drugs, no therapy, no words of wisdom. We know what is happening and we know it must happen. We’re proud of our children, proud of ourselves for our part in their success. We’re excited for the new adventures they’ll embrace and vicariously thrilled by their flight. We’re ready to welcome them back for the moments they’ll briefly return but have no delusion about keeping them forever in their cozy childhood rooms. We’re the ones gently, lovingly, pushing them out the door to their inevitable independence. We’re good parents and we know what we’re supposed to do.
But still…I had a very cool roommate for 18 years and now he’s moving out. And I’m really going to miss him.
To read the rest of the series (so far!):
All photographs courtesy of Lorraine Devon Wilke
Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.