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The Birth Of An Empty Nester


I’ve been preparing to become an Empty Nester since I became a mom. I just didn’t realize it at the time. Now that my son Jack is 22, and is subleasing an apartment in town, and my daughter Sari, 18, is getting ready to leave for college out of state in TWO days, I will join the ranks of Empty Nesters and start a new chapter in my life.

The anticipation of the notorious drop-off moment is worse than waiting for an ACT score to arrive in the mail. I’ll always remember the moment we said goodbye to our son and left him at college. It happened four years ago in the school parking lot. After we procrastinated our departure with 10 trips to Wal-Mart (how much Gatorade and extension cords does a guy need?), it was finally time to part ways. I squeezed his broad shoulders really tight, hanging on a little longer than usual, whispered something inaudible like “Love-you-I’m-so-proud-of-you,” and then watched him walk across campus by himself. That’s when—and here’s the momentous part—a student band set up their guitars and drum in the lawn and started jamming to Lynyrd Skynrd’s “Free Bird.”

On Sunday, we will have our special drop-off moment with our daughter, and while I don’t expect John Mayer’s “Daughters” to suddenly blare on the campus loudspeaker, I do anticipate all the feels. I know something memorable and sentimental is bound to happen after we’re done helping her decorate the walls and make her bed with pink and grey Pottery Barn pillows that match her roommate’s. Sure, I’ll feel kinda weepy about my little girl leaving home and how quiet the house will be without her friends raiding my pantry. At the same time, I remind myself to keep it all in perspective.  I know how damn lucky we both are to experience this moment that we have worked hard to get to. I have close friends whose teenagers died tragically in recent years. One friend lost her 18-year-old son from suicide, and another lost two daughters, ages 18 and 17, in a horrific car accident. These parents would give anything to have their children alive again. So, while my melancholy feelings of sadness, excitement, and uncertainty are all justified, I’m grateful for making it this far.

What I do have in common with these friends is that our youngest daughters are going to be freshmen, so we have each other to lean on. Like all moms and dads getting ready for drop-off (which is more like take-off as our teens embark on their journey of independence), I try to keep myself busy and focused. For example, I’ve stocked up on Command strips (all sizes),  umbrellas (red, black, and polka dotted), laundry baskets (a plastic upright with wheels, another nylon collapsible with wheels, and a canvas travel bag with heavy duty shoulder strap), and storage containers in all shapes and sizes. Plus, I bought enough Band-Aids (sheer, waterproof, and blister) to supply the student health clinic.

This concept of “letting go” is nothing new for parents. We’ve been practicing from the time we let our babies cry themselves to sleep in their crib, even if we eventually caved in and rocked them back to sleep until our own eyelids collapsed.

As our kids grew up, we kept “letting go,” such as when we took the training wheels off their bicycle and released our clenched fist from the back of the seat. Our hearts raced as we watched them weave along the sidewalk, narrowly avoiding a mailbox. On the first day of preschool, we hugged them goodbye in the crowded hallway until the teacher forced us to leave; when they started kindergarten we waved goodbye as they climbed aboard the school bus and then stared at us out the dirty window; in middle school we let them hang out at the mall on weekends and go to movies with friends even though we were afraid they might be kidnapped.

Letting go became harder as they got older because the consequences were greater. When they got their first cell phone, social media account, and then car keys, we realized we don’t have as much control as we used to. Together, we took baby steps and learned to let go a little more each year. By their last years of high school when they were in the thick of standardized tests, college applications, school tours, resumes, letters of rec, and roommate search–they started to take on more responsibilities and gradually grew up.

All along, we did our best to prepare them for the real world. Our conversations went from peer pressure, body image, and cyber bullying to scaring the shit out of them about alcohol abuse, drugs, drunk driving, rape, and crime. Turns out Generation Z is more enlightened about diversity, racism, equality, gender identity, religion, social justice, politics, and of course, rap music, than we ever were.

When my kids were ages 12 and 7, I started writing a parenting humor column “Mishegas of Motherhood…Raising Children To Leave The Nest, As Long As The Come Home For Dinner,” which combines domestic satire with ancient Jewish wisdom that applies to modern families. I learned that letting go is the most important—and the hardest—job of being a parent. In the Talmud, Judaism teaches us—“A father is obligated to teach his child to swim”—which means that our role as parents is to prepare them for this day when they leave home. All the way back in 2006, I wrote a blog about this idea HERE! Our children are not ours to keep. They are meant to fledge the nest and lose a few feathers along the way. Besides food, shelter, care, education, and love, it has been our holy obligation to teach them survival skills, show them how to “swim” when the waves of life get rough. Have we allowed them to develop the skills they need to live independently without our help if the need arises? Do they know how to work through challenges, take care of themselves, and find purpose and meaning in their life? Have we given them morals and values that they can use to guide them? Did we raise them with religious traditions, rituals and a sense of belonging? Do they know where to put a postage stamp on an envelope?

As my son and daughter make their way in the world, I know one thing for sure. My nest will always be open, in between school breaks, subleases, jobs, and the unpredictability of life itself. My home will always be a place for them to land when they need to. My grown children know they have a place to call home, even if their bedroom has been converted into an exercise studio. Who am I kidding, I’m never gonna use a bench press.

So, all the moms and dads who are about to become Empty Nesters, I’ll be thinking of you as you schlep cardboard boxes up the dorm elevator and eventually say goodbye in the school parking lot. Let’s stay in touch and support each other—that’s why I’m starting The Empty Nester’s Club—so stay tuned for details! Meanwhile, know that we have done our best, or at least good enough. We’ve given our children the two most important gifts (besides a credit card and laptop computer). We’ve given them ROOTS and WINGS.

So, my wish for Sari and all the other birdies leaving the nest…

It’s your turn to fly, baby!

(Good thing I have my toy poodle Luci to cuddle with when I get home).