Walking the Walk: The Reality of the Empty Nest

Having written a four-part series on the challenges of a child heading off for college, (see below for links) I’m now having to put that sage advice to the test. A few weeks back my husband and I headed off to Vancouver, Canada, to hand the future education of our youngest son into the hands of the University of British Columbia.

It’s been seven years since we last undertook this emotional journey, and then it was a mere two-hour drive up Interstate 10 to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in August 2005. Settling Missy into Louisiana State University, along (it seemed) with most of her graduating class, was relatively easy with little stress. She was, after all, sharing an apartment with friends she had known for the previous four years.

For us, the biggest challenge of that move came a week later when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and life for everyone in our family changed in ways we couldn’t have predicted.

Last week’s experience was a different universe. A nine and a half hour flight from the place we currently call home, a different continent and a nine-hour time difference – and our youngest child. The final fledgling spreading his wings, teetering on the edge of our empty nest.

A different scenario perhaps, but an eerily similar backdrop.

This year as the Katrina anniversary approached, we watched another storm snake its way towards Louisiana and relived the tension and uncertainty of the first. A small storm, nothing like the ferocity of Katrina. An echo of what had been, and how far life has moved on for everyone in our family since.

Our time in Vancouver has been bitter-sweet, as these life stages often are.

For Harry, the journey couldn’t come soon enough, he had checked out of his old life weeks ago. With a distant mind-set and a far away glaze to his eyes, it’s a look I’ve seen time after time in the eyes of expat friends as they’ve moved away and transitioned to a new life. I’ll admit it was a shock the first time I saw the same expression on his face and recognised it for what it was. He had mentally moved on before he had left, tough and unsettling for those left behind.

He was chafing at the bit to start his new life, to grab every opportunity and find his feet in the exciting world of independence and adulthood. A life separate from parents, family and high school. Separation from the pack and standing on his own two feet.

We wouldn’t want it any other way.

Except emotions have surfaced we do not recognise and which we are both struggling to put a name to. It’s unnerving and has left us feeling off-kilter and slightly adrift.

The physical, geographical and practical logistics have gone like clockwork – sort of –  Harry is unpacked, in dorms and having the time of his life.

What has shaken us is how unexpectedly different the emotional response to this experience has been, compared to that of our previous two children. Even they, neither of whom has lived at home for years, have been deeply affected by the thought their little brother will no longer be living under the family roof.

Our eldest, engaged and in the honeymoon period of home ownership (trips to the hardware store and garden centre) has been in touch daily to, ‘see how things are going’ not only for his brother, but for us too (oh how we longed for such maturity when he was in his teens!). Missy has also been in daily contact and Skyping mid-week (unheard off) to check on sibling/ parental progress.

The concern of our two eldest has not helped our heroic attempts to remain emotionally calm and stable – who knew they had turned into such caring and sensitive adults?

Both of us feel we’re on an emotional roller coaster – excited one minute, stricken the next. It is a grief, not only for the loss of the child who is leaving to strike out on his own, but for ourselves, and the end family life as we have known it. In my case for the last twenty-eight years. The days of raising, nurturing and parenting the children under our roof are over.

It is not the soul-destroying agony and pain of true loss, but a melancholy grief non the less. For the end of a huge part of our lives, for the acceptance of our own aging and opportunities missed, and a gentle envy of the possibilities open to Harry.

The world is a different place to the one we knew at his age – in many ways tougher and more challenging, in others a colourful kaleidoscope of opportunities with doors waiting to be opened, walked through and adventures to be experienced.

Like many parents on the same journey we know things will settle down and life will realign itself into a new sense of normal, and we’ll enjoy this phases of life, together, as a couple.

However, there are still quiet moments of deep sadness at time having passed too quickly, of life flying past at an alarming speed. But then I have wonderful memories – good times, laughter, treasured moments, and feel overwhelmed with how lucky we are. Life is an incredible journey and there will always be doorways to dance through if we open our eyes to see them, whatever stage of life we’re at.

As a great philosopher once said,

Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” ― Dr. Seuss


Links to previous articles on the empty nest and children leaving home:

College Bound Kids?: You’re not on your own

College Bound Kids?: The Practical Stuff for Heading Overseas

College Bound Kids?: Changing Family Dynamics 

College Bound Kids?: After They’ve Gone



About wordgeyser

Our anglo/american family used to live in four countries (USA, Canada, UK and the Netherlands) on two continents, separated by distance, time zones, circumstance and cultures. It has been a scary, enriching, challenging place to be. The only things guaranteed to get us through were a sense of humour and the amazing people met along the way. . . This year everything changed with a move for us from the Netherlands, – and a move along with us for our son and his wife from the UK – to Houston, Texas, the same city as our daughter. With our youngest in Vancouver, Canada, we are now all living on the same continent. How this happened, and more importantly why, will be the subject of this ongoing blog...
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9 Responses to Walking the Walk: The Reality of the Empty Nest

  1. Pingback: Identity Crisis, Depression and Finding a Way Back | Laurajstephens's Blog

  2. Linda directed me to this post today after I’d written about the impending arrival of our first born here – http://www.insearchofalifelessordinary.com/2012/09/what-to-expect-when-youre-not-one.html. I’m already experiencing new emotions and, just reading this, I realise what a ride this will be and how deep the bonds will grow between me and mine. It’s a lovely account you’ve written and I appreciate seeing how things change and transition over time.

    As an aside and for what it’s worth, I did the very same thing as your son. I left the UK and enrolled at the University of British Columbia in 2003 (at the age of 28 no less). I had the most fantastic 18 months of my life there, Vancouver is a truly amazing city, and UBC is a beautiful and highly respected place of learning. If you want to talk through any aspects of UBC and Vancouver living, just drop me a line (details on my blog) and I’d be happy to chat things through. But, rest assured, he’s in very good hands 🙂

    • wordgeyser says:

      Thanks Russell, I appreciate what you’ve said. We know our son will have an amazing time at UBC (I’ll admit we’re envious, what we’d have given to have that experience!) and we love Vancouver. What’s tough is coming back to a home without the energy, enthusiasm and fun that filled it when our son was home. I do, however, appreciate a tidy house, a fridge that stays full for days at a time and less laundry.
      I wish you and yours the very best at the start of your wonderful journey – enjoy every moment, nothing else in life will impact you like the arrival of a child. Hang on in there and enjoy the ride!

  3. kleinsusanv says:

    I can’t type through tears. Your feelings come through clearly in this well written (as usual) piece. Thank you, Jane.

    • wordgeyser says:

      Thank YOU, didn’t realise this would resonate so much, but of course it will. These feelings are universal for anyone who has had children and felt that primal emotion of protection. Not surprising that them leaving provokes such a strong response!

  4. Twelve years ago looking down at my newborn son the feeling of love for him was so intense it literally hurt. Overwhelmed and slightly alarmed by so much emotion I asked my mother when does it get easier? Her answer came straight from the heart: “Never,” she said supressing a sympathetic smile that spoke volumes. – Jane, today your beautifully written post reminded me of that very moment. We will never be able to let go emotionally, but like you said, we wouldn’t want it any other way. See you soon xx

    • wordgeyser says:

      Your mother is so wise! Parenthood changes us forever is so many ways – how could it not? She’s right, even though they’re not under the same roof the worry levels don’t go down, they adjust accordingly! Thank you for sharing this.

  5. Well said. It’s difficult because you not only miss them as your children, but as the people they’ve become. I know you’ll come through but best way is head down and directly through those feelings. Hope to see you in the days ahead.

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