published Sunday, August 26th, 2012

Baumgardner: A practical guide for empty-nesters

Julie Baumgardner

You walk through the door after dropping your baby off at college. Who knew that one additional person could add so much noise to the house. The silence is deafening.

Trying to hold back the tears, you wonder what she's up to. Will he miss you? How long will it take her to call? Will he pay attention to a thing you taught him?

Even if the past few months have been challenging, there is something about an empty nest that jolts you into the reality that life is never going to be the same. Ready or not, the next season of life has arrived.

Experts say that couples who find themselves "alone again" often find it difficult to adjust. For years, schedules, meals, activities, everything revolved around the kids. This moment in time can feel like an identity crisis. The good news is you never stop being a parent. You just parent in a different way when the kids head off to college. Instead of directing, you now move into a supporting role.

At this moment, you may feel like you will never be the parents on television who said their sad goodbyes to their college-bound child and, in the next scene, were headed to Disney World. Take a deep breath and try some of these suggestions to help make the transition a bit easier.

• Acknowledge the change. One great thing about this time in life is that it offers you the opportunity to redefine yourselves and your marriage.

• Get some rest. Since you aren't coordinating meals, after-school activities and other things, you can actually go to bed at 8 p.m. if you want to. Give yourself permission to slow down, settle in and rejuvenate.

• Allow yourself to grieve. It is not uncommon to feel a sense of loss or regret during this time. FYI: The empty nest hits men just as hard as women.

• Resist the temptation to fill up your schedule. While you may feel a huge void in your life, instead of filling up the time and space with new commitments, enjoy your newfound freedom.

• Ask for help if you need it. If your empty-nest marriage is showing signs of withdrawal, alienation or negativity, seek professional counseling to help you process all that is going on.

• Keep your sense of humor. It will definitely help you get through the tough times.

• Stay connected. Care packages, real cards in the mail, emails and the occasional phone call are great ways to stay connected to your teen without coming across as overbearing, miserable or desperate.

• Enjoy the silence. Remember the times you would have killed for just five minutes of complete quiet? Instead of fearing the silence, embrace it.

• Reconnect with your spouse. You can plan romantic dates, schedule gatherings with friends, take up something new like skydiving; heck, you can even walk around the house naked.

• Last but not least, celebrate! Parenting takes a tremendous amount of time and energy. Launching your child into the next phase of life is quite an accomplishment. It is important to acknowledge where you have come from and where you want your relationship to go in the future. This is your time. Enjoy.

Email Julie Baumgardner, president and executive director of First Things First, at julieb@firstthings.org.

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