As sure as summer turns to fall, every August thousands of women across the country experience a unique form of heartbreak. It’s not unrequited love – it’s the bittersweet act of sending a child off to college. Empty nest syndrome creates anxiety for even the most independent of women. Next to childbirth, it’s one of the biggest transitions of motherhood.
Departure - Not Abandonment
For many, it’s a personal struggle to come to terms with one’s own feelings of loss and change. Mindy Holgate, 45, an office manager from New York, was surprised at how deeply she was affected by her daughter Emily’s departure for a large state university three hours away. “It was huge. We had a friendship as well as a mother/daughter relationship. When that was taken away, I felt so lonely.”
Holgate says she cried for two weeks after saying goodbye last August. She also admits that she resented Emily and felt abandoned. But now, looking back with a year’s perspective under her belt, she acknowledges, “That was all about me, not her. Having that bond and then letting go was my own issue.”
Transplantating Your Child
Like Holgate, many mothers who sing the empty nest blues can't see beyond the hole created by a child’s absence. And maybe it’s the phrase ‘empty nest’ that’s partly to blame. The following analogy expresses this transition in a more positive light:
Imagine transplanting a flower or bush to a new location so it can grow healthier and stronger. For this to successfully occur, you have to dig up the plant and sever its roots. There’s an initial shock to the system, but planted in its new surroundings, it extends new roots and eventually establishes itself more firmly than before. And the hole that’s left behind can be filled in with fertile soil ready to nurture new opportunities.
Mother - Not Friend
Letting go seems especially challenging for baby boomer mothers. Many pride themselves on being a friend first and a parent second. This may be why a term used by college administrators – helicopter parenting – has entered the mainstream to describe a mother and/or father who hovers to the detriment of their child’s personal growth and development.
Anyone familiar with the cell phone habits of teenagers knows that constant contact with friends, whether texting or calling, is commonplace. But a responsible mother who wants what’s best for her college freshman has to behave like a parent – not a friend. She needs to refrain from picking up the phone and calling or sending text messages daily, or even weekly.
School of Hard KnocksLet your child reach out to you and establish his or her own terms for staying in touch. They’re the ones who have to learn the ins and outs of college classes, dorm life, relationships, newfound freedom, and financial responsibility.
Over-involvment - or trying to smooth over the rough spots that arise in college life - takes away opportunities for your child to envision solutions or develop coping strategies. Holgate found this out herself when her daughter casually mentioned in a phone conversation that she’d lost her student dining card and couldn’t access her meal plan. Though Holgate was frustrated that her daughter hadn’t thought to contact student services with her problem, she knew it was all a part of growing up.
“Out of Your Hands”And the benefit of letting go? A life that blooms independently on its own. Holgate sees the process as similar to paying out rope: “First you ease it little by little, then suddenly it just slips out of your hands and you’ve let go.”
She realized she’d let go when her daughter Emily decided to go to Canada this summer for a week with friends. “I didn’t ask her where she was staying, where I could reach her, or what she’d be doing. And I almost felt guilty about it. Last summer I wouldn’t have imagined I’d feel this way. Over the past year, the process of letting go almost happened right under my nose without my noticing it.”
Holgate’s advice to mothers currently facing this situation: “Let the kid go. And don’t lose sight of the fact that it’s a transition for both of you.”