Huff/Post50 blogger Melissa Shultz said she couldn’t be prouder of her two grown sons. But when they left for college, making her an empty nester, she felt a deep sense of loss as one familial routine after another fell away. She no longer enjoyed the kind of motherly role that had been intrinsic to her identity for more than two decades. In short, Shultz’ purpose was unclear, and she wasn’t sure how to move forward. “I know, of course, that it’s not really a ‘loss’ at all ― my boys have matured to become productive, curious, and kind young men. They make me proud every day. But I’m only human, and therefore subject to feelings that have nothing at all to do with logic,” she said.
Ultimately she had no choice but to reinvent herself ― a transformation that can be easy in theory but difficult in practice. But she did it, and wrote a book about the experience titled, From Mom to Me Again: How I Survived My First Empty-Nest Year and Reinvented the Rest of My Life that was published in July.
We recently spoke with Shultz about life as an empty nester.
Huff/Post50: So you are the mother of two. How old are your kids?
Melissa: My sons are now 21 and 23. When they left for college, they were each 18.
How did it feel when your youngest left?
I’d already gone through it once with my oldest but this time felt very different. This time was a wonderful moment for me. When my youngest was 12, he got very sick, and stayed that way for over a year. As he recovered, the sense that our lives had been forever altered never left me, and I wondered if we’d have this experience ― of his going away to school. So there we were, my son, my husband, and myself, standing in the parking lot of his college, saying goodbye as he was about to begin his freshman year, and he gathered us in for this big family hug. I felt a mix of relief, joy, and pride. Then, as we drove away, I began to cry ― it was an opposite rush of emotion, and I understood, all at once, that an entire chunk of my life was behind me. And I didn’t want to see it end.
How were things different after the kids left home?
I found that time worked very differently. My family framework was gone, so each day passed much more slowly, even when I was incredibly busy. I kept thinking I was forgetting something or someone. I looked at the clock constantly. It all seemed so temporary ― they would be home soon and those long must-do lists would appear again. I hadn’t fully understood how much of my time was spent thinking solely about family, and how that time was now mine for the taking.
How did the kids being gone change your relationship with your husband?
It brought us closer, actually. We learned to better appreciate one another, to listen more carefully, and to talk about issues as they arise, in real time ― not table them because our lives are too busy or the kids are around. Putting off discussions about yourselves is an easy habit to fall into when you’re in the thick of parenting. Today, we are also more tolerant of the things that once drove us nutty about each other ― and there’s a richness to our marriage that wasn’t there before, of having shared more than two decades raising children. It’s not always been easy, but we are now kinder and more appreciative every day of what we have and who we are as individuals, apart from being parents.
What would you tell parents who are dropping off their kid for the first time this year?
I’d say that it’s OK to feel and work through the emotion ― it’s a natural process that everyone undergoes in some way. When the kids leave home we’re most afraid of losing our connection with them, the intimacy. We want to keep them safe, but we can’t because we’re not under the same roof anymore. You hope that they’ve heard you all these many years and that they make good choices. In most cases, they have and they will.
If I were to go back in time, I’d tell myself to worry less. Most of the many terrible things I was sure would happen, didn’t ― or if they did, I didn’t know about them, and my kids are fine. This is the time when you need to transition to being a mentor, to show them how to keep moving forward no matter what, and then allow yourself the chance to focus on you. Because you’re worth it.