By Dr. Margaret Rutherford
When empty nest hit, I mentally counted every day the same way I did when my child was born.
"He's been gone two months and three days." Then it became, "Five months and 17 days." After several months, I lost count. The new normal had hit. He was creating new relationships and new spaces to call home.
His dorm room. An apartment. The fraternity house. Even the entire college campus.I wrote about it in a post called "Separate Houses". When I read it now, I sound a little pitiful. But that's how it felt for a time. Not long, thank goodness.
I saw a fairly new empty nester this week in my office. She was trying to figure out her own new normal. Her college-age daughter would breeze in for the weekend but spend all her time catching up with friends. Yes. She was home. Yes, mom knew it was her job to step aside. But darn it. She didn't get the time she wanted with her daughter. After all, she no longer got to greet that bedhead kid groping her way down the stairs to get a cup of coffee first thing every morning. She didn't hear the back door slamming after basketball practice: "What's for dinner?" She's not getting to enjoy the small glimpses of the child that's still within the almost grownup she sees before her.
And she missed those moments. A lot of parents miss those moments.
How do you talk to your now emptied child about this new normal? How do you express the kind of time you'd like with her without coming across as needy? What are healthy boundaries?
As I searched my own experience, I discovered three helpful changes in my thinking and behavior.
- Avoid making assumptions about what time together will be like.
You might have all kinds of ideas about how you'd like a weekend or a holiday to be spent. But your returning child will probably have her own ideas. If you make assumptions, you're more than likely going to be surprised, and maybe even get hurt. The late teenage years and early twenties aren't the most empathic of times, and your child may be focused on her independence. She's not living at home anymore and has had the experience of going and doing whenever she wanted. Coming home for her - maybe even coordinating activities with you - isn't something she's used to.
- Communicate before your time together about your own expectations or desires and theirs.
"We know you've got lots of people you want to see. How about we plan to have Saturday brunch, just us? Then the rest of the weekend is up for grabs." Or, "I'd like to ask that we go as a family to visit Grandma. When could we work that out?" It's not that those plans are wedged in concrete. You can remain flexible. But you've asked for something reasonable. They can as well. These agreements honor the parents, who want a little "alone time" with a child, as well as your child who has others to consider.
Sometimes the shoe is on the other foot, and parents may be busy as well. If you're communicating and compromising, things will go much more smoothly.
- Realize you're practicing a skill you'll need for the rest of your life - sharing your child with the world and letting go.
If all goes well, and parents want good things for kids, then life will become more complicated. There'll be a wife or husband, in-laws and babies. How they spend their time will no longer be completely in their control. Just like high school assignments could make or break a weekend, more adult responsibilities will take time - just as they did in your own life.
Letting go is an ongoing journey. But these three ideas can help clear that path and avoid miscommunication and conflict.
Dr. Margaret Rutherford, a clinical psychologist, has practiced for twenty-five years in Fayetteville, Arkansas., Her work can be found at http://www.drmargaretrutherford.com,as well as HuffPost, Psych Central, Psychology Today, the Gottman Blog and others. She's the author of "Marriage Is Not For Chickens", a perfect gift book on marriage, and hosts a weekly podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Her new book, Perfectly Hidden Depression, will be published by New Harbinger in 2019. Permission granted for use on DrLaura.com.