Just before Labor Day 2008 we moved our older daughter into her Princeton dorm. Two days later we loaded up my black Highlander and drove our younger daughter four hours away to boarding school in Andover, MA.
As the days shortened and the economy crashed, I took earlier and earlier trains to my office in New York City. I worked by the light of my computer until other people arrived. When the room was full, their whispers and keystrokes pounded in my ears. Once, the glass in the windows shattered, and colors flew around the room.
“I can give you medicine for the anxiety,” the psychiatrist said, “but what is this trying to tell you?”
“I don’t even know where to begin,” I said.
“Honor the rocks in your road, Carol.” he said. “Don’t hurry to push them aside.”
For as long as I could remember, I had put my children’s needs before my own. Once I stopped to pay attention, I was shocked by the harsh edges of my own feelings, the stories from my past that bubbled up and over the smooth surface of my everyday life.
Working with high school students applying to college, I have seen hundreds of parents go through similarly rough transitions, their own versions of the “empty nest.” Sometimes it happens when the child is in eleventh grade; sometimes it hits years later. Something big shifts when your children leave home. Here’s what I wish I had known before my empty nest hit me head on:
5 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me before My Nest Was Empty
1. Life moves in circles.
We often think of life as a line moving in a predictable path—up and to the right. There is another model where you move in circles and cycles, learning what each place has to teach you, and when you are done there, you are launched to another place. When your children leave home, many people experience an abrupt shift in an uncharted direction. This is to be expected, and there is nothing wrong.
2. You may feel a shocking combination of loss and liberation.
When your children’s needs and incessant activities are no longer available to organize your days, you will notice things you have not thought about for years. You can do anything; there is no more excuse. This truth comes as a shock, and many people rush to fill the feeling of emptiness with something, anything to ease the uncanny sense of both sadness and newfound possibility.
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3. Pieces of your past that were tucked safely away may come back.
To move forward, you may need to go back into a well of past experiences. Perhaps there is a dream you deferred or a promise you made to yourself and then abandoned. The past comes back to teach you something; memories return for sharing and for healing. Pay attention to your dreams. Write down the thoughts that come to you when you are alone. Honor whatever it is and wherever it comes from. Pay attention as long as you need to, and then gently let go of the things that no longer serve you.
4. Question what you think you know.
So much of what we do we do in habitual ways. We go to the same grocery store and have coffee with the same friends. But every moment in our lives we make choices, choices with our words and actions about the world we are creating. Every moment is vivid with meaning and our ability to make a difference. Make new choices. Try new things. Learn to be curious like a child again. You will find what you need for the future.
5. When you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.
When you feel stuck, try one step in any new direction. For me it was meditation. At first I could not sit still with my own thoughts for even a minute. But slowly, over many days and years, I learned to sit quietly and listen to the stillness that gets me out of my own thoughts and connects me with my sense of purpose and with other people. On the days I am too busy to meditate, the room starts to spin all over again.
“I have no idea what I’m going to do next,” I told my boss a week later, “but I need to take some time off to figure it out.” Two years later, I started my second business, Story To College.
Through Story To College, Carol Barash has taught over 12,000 students around the world how to tell their stories and advocate for themselves to win college admissions and scholarships. In 2013, she published Write Out Loud: The Definitive Guide to College Admission Essays (McGraw Hill). Story To College is the winner of Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses and the Kaplan EdTech Accelerator, powered by Tech Stars.