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Reflections on adapting to an emptier nest

By Lucy Ewing

There is the big wind up: so much excitement feeding into the departure for college.

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High School Parent | College Parent

And then there is the big wind down: a quiet(er) house, a bedroom that is unbelievably too clean, and only echoes of kitchen conversations with the son or daughter now inhabiting another energy field miles from home.

College students are not the only ones with changing roles during this time. Parents are learning to cope with the void and channel parenting energy in proactive ways. Because, while you will always be there for your student, you’re not a member of a volunteer fire department (unless you are). Your status will not be on-call as much as call-in.

We can grow into our new roles with a healthy perspective.

If your nest is not empty yet, it’s important to stay in tune with the younger children still at home. Their routines will be impacted, too, especially the one-on-one time they’ve shared with their sibling.

After my daughter left for college, I noticed that my high school son started asking when I was coming home from work. I’d overlooked that he and his sister were afterschool companions many days for many years. I tried to wrap up at work earlier, and I encouraged him to make his own calls to his sister, a practice they continue to this day.

We arranged a special rendezvous that first year, too. When my son toured a college in Chicago, our daughter flew out from her Providence campus to meet us. We spent a fabulous weekend walking around the city and celebrating Valentine’s Day and Chinese New Year at a happy restaurant. It was the mid-year hug everyone needed.

Your eyes have been trained on your child for many years. Now is your chance to stand up from the booster seats and get physical. Opportunities for easy-on-the-body activities like swimming, biking, and yoga should be plentiful. And, yes, there are those dance lessons you’ve always proposed to your partner. Exercise is a great way to replace concerns about your college student with positive endorphins. It can help you rest better at night, too.

Parents with time on their hands might indeed be inclined to stay at work a little longer. This can benefit your career, but think also about devoting some time to a back-burner passion. One college parent I know started training service dogs. She’s on her second child leaving for college — and her second dog. Other friends packed their student off to college and then became active with local clean energy groups. Within a year, the two of them were meeting with their representatives at the U.S. Capitol.

While you are hoping your student is eating well on campus, take stock of your own eating habits. With two children off to college in short order, I didn’t feel like cooking. My husband and I overdosed on quick-service noodles and burritos, and take-out bowls stacked up in the recycling. His cholesterol inched up and my waistbands were pinching.

So I signed on to a friend’s healthy recipe site and got busy in the kitchen, rekindling an earlier love for cooking. When our kids returned from college, they were amused to see we now stocked coconut oil, almond milk, and rice vinegar in the pantry.

Many pursuits provide new social outlets for parents who crave conversation and company more than they may know. Take time to recognize your own needs. When they are well filled, you will be in a good frame of mind to support your student’s needs the next time you connect.

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