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Empty Nest: Life After My Children Moved Out

The day your youngest child leaves for college is something like the day your eldest was born: You know the day is coming, but you aren't completely sure how you'll handle it when it arrives.
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The day your youngest child leaves for college is something like the day your eldest was born: You know the day is coming, but you aren't completely sure how you'll handle it when it arrives.

When I was pregnant with my first child, dozens of people warned me, "Your life with change forever!!" When you are 25 years old, those are scary words. Just one person said to me, "Everyone tells you your life will change ... no one tells you you'll love how it changes."

I held on to that, and it turns out, I agreed.

Before becoming an empty nester, I heard the naysayers, too. The media seems only to mention this phase of our lives with the doomsday phrase "empty nest syndrome." But one day -- nearly a year before "the day" -- I was running a quick errand in the business district of my Midwestern town and bumped into a friend I hadn't seen in a long time.

"How are you?" I asked. "Oh, boy, your youngest must be in college. How IS it? I'm right behind you!"

She missed her daughter, she admitted. She'd been afraid her home, without both girls, would be a place she wouldn't want to be. But, she told me in almost an apologetic whisper, "It's not bad!"

Here she was on a Sunday, leisurely wandering the city's downtown -- something she never did during the years her athletic daughters were involved in sports. She and her husband were going out to eat on weeknights sometimes, she exclaimed. There were pluses.

This woman was a lot like me, and I trusted her. I thought about her often in that last year as I savored my daughter's senior year in high school.

When the day came and we drove our daughter to school and left her there, we drove back home -- pretty quietly -- and walked into an empty house. It was sad, but I remembered my friend's words.

My husband went back to work the next day. Just like all of our corporate moves over the years, big changes didn't really change his life much. But I had been working for years from home -- a home where children lived.

I started out coping with denial. Not much has changed, I told myself. She was gone so much the past couple of years anyway. This is no different than when she was at volleyball practice after school. I'd tell myself, "She'll be home at dinnertime," and pretend it was true, going about my business as usual. That worked fairly well for the first few weeks.

Luckily, I'd thought ahead. I had a couple of outings with friends planned, and they were as distracting as they were meant to be. One was a girls' weekend at the lake. Another involved high school friends visiting from out of town. It was great to catch up -- and that group had the added benefit of making me feel 17 again.

I got pretty good at pushing the big transition to the back of my mind. Other than the 10,000 times I got phone calls from my daughter, that is. I wasn't prepared for that. When the boys each left, they called occasionally, usually with questions or needs. But she called just to talk! It was fun! And, truly, it mitigated the feeling that I'd lost her. She was still around, and now I could carry her around in my purse!

I got lucky in another way, too. Parents of college athletes get special permission to stalk our children at school. We attended as many of her matches as was humanly possible and got to see her, if not spend as much time with her as we'd like.

What made the whole experience easiest yet was how happy she was. She loved her teammates and her school. She smiled even when we left. We tried to do the same.

So as she flourished there, I tried to flourish here. I'd been prepared for this for a while -- I'd been making lists since her two-years-older brother left. There were so many things I'd always pushed aside, things I didn't want to do then -- "not while the kids are still here!" I had written those down. Projects and plans -- both fun and chore-like -- related to work and to home. I went to that list whenever I felt a little lost or sad and picked a project.

My husband and I took a ballroom-dancing class with some other couples. I started horseback riding lessons. I joined a book club. All things I'd wanted to do, but I had wanted to enjoy every last minute with the kids first.

I'd written a newspaper column for 12 years and when it ended, I took a year off to enjoy my daughter's last year home. With her gone, I started a new newspaper column -- not weekly this time, but monthly. I began looking into countless other work projects I'd considered too time-intensive when my mothering-in-residence years were waning.

So between the extra reading and working -- oh, and remodeling our master bathroom, another really great post-children diversion -- I didn't have much time to notice my nest was empty. In fact, with a grown son 30 miles away who stopped by occasionally, a younger son studying abroad and returning home for several wonderful weeks before our daughter's winter break and our daughter on the cell phone three or four times a day, our nest didn't feel empty -- in fact, I liked to look at it as half full.

My life, meanwhile, was blessedly as full as ever, just in different ways. I spent more time on and with my friends. My daily walks and several-days-a-week pilates classes became sacrosanct instead of hopeful. I didn't rush home from places, and I learned that if you go shopping at 3:30 instead of getting home to intercept the ready-to-talk-when-they-walk-in-the-door-and-no-more kids, you get great parking spaces.

My husband and I went out to dinner and to movies on weeknights. We found out which couples wanted to join us on those outings. As my friend had told me the year earlier, "It's not bad."

It's all in the way you look at it. They say you can look at a glass as half empty or half full. A nest is no different.