I Don't Have 'Empty Nest Syndrome,' I Have 'Life Has No Purpose Syndrome' And It's Terrifying

I spent the last 23 years defining myself as a parent.
Looking at colleges together was so much fun; sadly it led to me becoming obsolete as a full-time mom.
Looking at colleges together was so much fun; sadly it led to me becoming obsolete as a full-time mom.
Photo Courtesy of Tracey Brittis

The end of August has always given me a familiar pit in my stomach, brought on by old college days where the syllabus looked daunting and the social scene was intimidating. But instead, this year, I’m having nightmares about my second and youngest child abandoning me to attend her first year of college, leaving me teetering on the edge of an abyss.

“Oh, it’s the empty nest syndrome you’re fretting about,” my friends say. “You’ll get used to it.” But the name “empty nest” doesn’t do the situation justice. It should be changed to “nest destroyed, no life, desperate for a purpose syndrome.” The entire nest is being dislodged, the straw and feathers that cushioned my children from the ills of life flying everywhere.

Whom will I cook for and how will I bear the fact that my house is no longer strewn with shoes and towels and a random pair of underwear that the dog dragged downstairs? It’ll just be me and my two low-maintenance dogs, who don’t talk back or give me that all-important body hug.

As my daughter, Christina, prepares to leave me, a divorced cancer survivor, she is clearly pulling away by being out with her friends more, leaving a deafening quiet in the house. Instead of nagging my 18-year-old diva to clean her room and walk the dogs, I find suddenly she can do no wrong.

“You look beautiful,” I say to her in her cropped shirt with Band-Aids instead of a bra and makeup that includes facial contouring, as she’s on her way to a party where there’s “no drinking.”

“Have fun and don’t be too late,” I say instead of, “Change your shirt and be home by 11, not a minute later.”

I find myself waiting around the house, anticipating her return home so I can hear her stories, ones that for years I nodded through while multitasking because they were so long and detailed. Now, I’m this close to offering her a vodka tonic so she’ll stay home longer and tell me what she thinks about everything and everyone.

The two of us have always been close, especially after her brother, five years her senior, went to boarding school and then college, while she stayed home and attended public school. When things are going well, I call her princess and she calls me queen, appropriate names in that I reign over the house, and she is as spoiled as a princess can be, by me, her queen. This doesn’t mean there isn’t the requisite grunting and monosyllabic responses to my attempts to draw her out when she’s not in the mood to talk. And there’s been more than one “I hate you,” which I’ve come to appreciate as not being personal, just part of the 18-year-old girl thing.

In reality, I want to change places with her, and so I start looking for classes to take at the local college. English literature would allow me to read all the old classics that I just read the Cliffs Notes for back when I was an English major, and have a smart professor explain all the subtle nuances of style and theme. What a treat that would be. Maybe I should try to get a Ph.D? Or find a meaningful part-time volunteer position? My skills as a lawyer are so outdated, I would never be considered for any job in my field, and there’s no part time in law. Thinking about the extra time and energy I will have does not console me ― rather, the opposite.

Our last photo in front of the Christmas tree before we begin the journey of choosing the right college for Christina.
Our last photo in front of the Christmas tree before we begin the journey of choosing the right college for Christina.
Photo Courtesy of Tracey Brittis

I should be cheering for the upcoming event of flying to Michigan to help Christina move into her University of Michigan dorm room, cheering “Go Wolverines,” and, “You did it, you’re a star.” Instead I’m fighting off tears and forcing a smile.

Part of me wonders why I put such intense pressure on her to achieve academically instead of encouraging Christina to have fun in high school and commute to a local community college to keep her mother company. But education is something I’ve always valued over just about everything, and I’ve preached that to my kids from the time they were in kindergarten. I’ve pushed the idea that a solid education is the only real way to happiness and success later in life. Now I’m questioning whether this is really true.

This empty nester thing is much more than a syndrome. It’s a major life-altering moment that can make you feel as though you need to reshape your entire identity. I spent the last 23 years defining myself as a parent. From the time I was young, I thought about being a mom as my No. 1 objective and I threw my entire being into the job once it finally arrived. Now that time is over.

Or is it? Maybe the letting go is actually part of parenting that, although difficult for someone like me, can be a gift for both the child and the parent. And there’s Thanksgiving, Christmas and summer vacations. I could be overreacting to the unknown.

I’m reminded of Christina’s very first days of preschool, when we started this all-important march toward the ultimate college, when the foreshadowing toward the last day of high school was clear as daylight. Back then, my special arrangement was to put Christina in the preschool teacher’s lap, with sticky gummies clutched tightly in her hand, then awkwardly turn and run out the door. A trick and a bribe, I admit. But I was relieved to have her safely in the arms of her sweet teacher, with other toddlers there for her socialization time, so I could get some all-important me-time for working out or anything, as long as I was alone.

This time, drop-off will mean a solo flight home from Michigan, leaving a credit card in Christina’s hand. Her peers will be ready to corrupt her with alcohol-soaked parties and sorority rushes.

And yet I have promised myself not to cry as I say goodbye, to wait until I walk out that dorm room door and get far enough away so that she won’t hear me choking on the sobs I’ve been holding back. I will walk out that door saying, “It’s so awesome here,” and, “You’re gonna do great,” and “I’m gonna be so fine.” And that little lie at the end is just part of being a mom. Not that different from the sticky gummies all those years ago.

So now I am bravely unlocking the tower door, and this queen is letting her princess go. Out she goes, into the world to make her own mistakes, achieve her highest dreams and grab the moments of her youth on her own terms. And maybe some extra me-time won’t be so bad.

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