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Adapting to The Half-Empty Nest

The benefits of having your child leave home slowly


The benefits of having your child leave home slowly

I always thought there would be a defining moment when my daughter, Hannah, would pack up for college and look wistfully at me as she drove away, calling “I’ll miss you, Mom!”  
 
There has been no such moment.  
 
She is a 19-year-old freshman in college and lives with me — sometimes. Her dad and I divorced over 12 years ago and still live in the same town. Hannah splits her time between us and attends college classes the rest of the time.  
 
The scene I’d played in my head with Hannah driving away would have been like ripping off a Band-Aid. Instead, I’m peeling it back slowly. This “now you see her, now you don’t” game means a lengthy transition to the empty nest.

(MORE: When Kids Leave Home, What's Next?)
 
The downside of not knowing when Hannah will be around is that I miss her more when she’s gone. We see each other in small blocks of time that she chooses. There is no regular cadence of family activities.
 
Yet, even while it feels strange to lose the tether of a schedule, I’m learning I now have freedom to do things I may not have been able to when she was younger. I’ve decided to take this chance to grow and develop, just like my daughter is doing.
 
When Leaving Really Begins
 
When a child enters into the dark and stormy world of teendom, it’s at first unsettling for a parent to face closed (and sometimes locked) doors, a lack of conversation and plenty of eye rolling.  
 
Back when Hannah was about 13, I had a hard time adjusting to the loss of my beautiful, ringlet-haired little girl who liked to watch Hannah Montana and do silly dances with me.  
 
Looking back on that time now, I realize it was the start of a gradual letting-go process that was necessary as much for me as for her. I always thought I would be nudging Hannah of the nest, but it turns out her absence has made me learn to fly.
 
The subtle but inevitable shift in her willingness to spend time with me and suffer my intentional and unintentional parental embarrassments served to help me step onto the side of the nest and begin looking down.
 
A New Relationship With Time
 
What's down there, away from the nest? My abandoned writing career, my friends with similarly partially-occupied nests and time — definitely lots of time.

(MORE: Rediscovering Old Passions)
 
I used to fear these long stretches of time alone. I had to come up with something to do besides cut up Hannah’s chicken nuggets and sit patiently on the sidelines of Saturday morning soccer games. I made attempts to immerse myself in riveting forensic detective shows and partially-read books, pretending not to miss Hannah. Time felt scary because I had to fill it.  
 
As I approach turning 50 this year, I find more and more time in my life. I would have killed for the extra time I have now back when I was in my 30s.
 
When children are young, mothers learn to find precious moments alone, sometimes spent frantically eating chocolate chip cookies in the closet. Going to the bathroom alone or without whining from anyone on the other side of the door is the ultimate prize.  
 
Now, I could spend all day in the bathroom and no one would care.
 
Confronting Quiet
 
I wonder now if time is not filled, what happens?  
 
Without busyness, with silence, thoughts arise about my expanding waistline, my shrinking bank account, my loneliness.  

(MORE: Reimagining My Life)
 
All these thoughts are stored in an unlighted room in my heart, and like a dark cellar or a closet under the stairs, there’s all kinds of junk in there. When time and quiet become my roommates, that unlighted room opens up and asks me to sort through stored feelings.
 
I know I can no longer avoid the room by filling my life with endless activities. The clutter of busyness will keep me from flying. In fact, flying demands silence, taking wing and catching the wind.  
 
So instead of finding constant distractions, it’s time I stepped behind the door and considered the clutch in my throat. The feelings aren’t negative, they just are. I sit for a minute in my imaginary storage room and welcome the tears. It’s okay, I tell myself. She is mine, forever tethered to me with an invisible thread, mother to daughter. Let her fly, and I can fly, too.
 
Hannah’s quiet nature and often closed door — and now her absences — have slowly made me not fear an unscheduled day and not to look at those hours as empty, or unfilled. I’m grateful for the abundance of time I now have. Time brings possibilities. Whether it’s creating an incredible dinner for one, or making peace with my unlighted room, I have time.

It is the gift of growing older.

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