And just like that, they're gone.
The months and weeks of prepping for their departure were stressful, expensive and emotional. But you got them there, settled in and you are finally home. The painful reality is quickly setting in. Each time you walk past their empty bedroom, you feel a little pinch of sadness or the anticipation of the door opening and hearing their footsteps as they come home from school ends in disappointment. Family dinners is one place setting short and the idea of one less person to clean up after, still feels wrong. Life as you knew it for 18 years with that human has drastically shifted in a very short time. Yes, you knew it was coming and tried your best to prep for it, but you still can't escape the feelings that come when your kid leaves home.
If you were like me, you've probably looked up articles online about empty nest syndrome and coping with it, finding that each article offered their own perspective, their story and suggestions to cope. While I appreciated all the tips and such, none of them were actually really helpful to me. It wasn't until I was able to connect with what mattered to me, the root of the pain I was feeling and what was feeding it, was I able to finally understand, process and work through all the emotions that I was feeling. With my second (and youngest) child having just left for college, I fully realize how each experience is unique, from their choice of college, to their living arrangements and more importantly to who they are as their own individual beings.
So, I'd like to share with you what I did, because not only does it allow you to personalize the process, but more importantly, it also offers an approach that I find applicable in so many other situations.
Hopefully, you're a little curious by now and wondering what this magical process is that I've discovered. Sadly, I cannot claim credit for it. However, I can give myself credit for recognizing that I had access to an amazing tool bag and for figuring out how to use each of those tools in this particular context. Ready for the big reveal? Inside my tool bag was...
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
I used the concepts from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to help. There are 6 core processes within ACT, but I framed them in my own way that made sense to me. Here is how I broke them down:
acceptance, awareness and appreciation of my thoughts, beliefs, assumptions
willingness to embrace the experience from a values based perspective.
I hope you read on and if any of it resonates with you, perhaps you'd be willing to give it a go and notice what you get out of it.
There is no time like the present.. The time is Now... we've all heard the many quotes about time and the present moment. It is true. We only have the now. This very second is all that we have to experience. So how does being present actually help when my heart is longing for my kid? Well, let me share.
Being present reminds me to appreciate the reality that I can't change the past, nor can I predict or control the future. It stops me from dwelling and getting lost reminiscing about the past (good and bad), which inevitably, makes me miss them more. It stops me from looking into my imaginary crystal ball about their future, which only leads to me down my dreaded worry woods, where the "what if" trees are overgrown, the "if this, then that" mud holes are pretty deep and the voices of doubt, fear and the "should haves" are pretty darn loud.
Being present also gives me the opportunity to check in with myself, mentally, physically and emotionally. To have that moment to remember that I am ME. I am my own individual, separate being. That while the bond with my kids is unbreakable, I am still my own person, living my own life, just as they are. That I have my own path to walk, just as they do. And while our paths are no longer the same, there are moments that I can still seem them through the trees and there is comfort knowing that we're both walking under the same moon.
Awareness, Acceptance, and Appreciation of my thoughts, beliefs, assumptions.
This is where I've combined 2 of the 6 core process of ACT, cognitive defusion and self as context. I won't go into details about each of those, as it can get a little wordy. I started by taking a very honest look at my own thoughts and feelings about my kid(s) leaving home, going to college, their adjustment to a new place, their ability to live on their own, make decisions, their well being and safety, their social network, their health etc. I also took a close (sometimes painful) look at myself, my own biases and beliefs and my life moving forward.
Here are some of the questions I asked myself:
What was I really worried about?
What were some of my biggest fears?
What assumptions, beliefs and thoughts did I have that may be causing bias or adding to my fears and worries?
After reflecting on the answers, the next two steps were key:
Accepting my thoughts, beliefs and assumptions as simply thoughts, beliefs and assumptions and NOT reality, NOT truths. Recognizing that much of this content of my mind has been shaped by years of conditioning through all my lived experiences. Our mind looks for ways to validate and justify itself and it often succeeds, however I truly believe that our perceptions create our reality. In a way, we are the center of our own universe, because besides processing sensory information that enters through our body, our brains are highly capable of adding extra layers of processing of that same information by means of filtering it all through THINKING.... and man, that is one complex filter, there's a lot of stuff there. So by looking at my thoughts, beliefs and assumptions from that standpoint, it kept me from over-identifying with them, from buying into them hook line and sinker, to being able to take them with a grain of salt. This acceptance can be super helpful to harness when faced with any difficult encounter.
Appreciating the fact that not only are my thoughts, beliefs and assumptions NOT truths, and because they are not truths, that there ARE other possible thoughts, beliefs and assumptions. Our world is designed to have opposites - there's the north pole and the south pole, there's night and day, hot and cold, good and bad.... It all works together in synchronicity and finds itself in some kind of dynamic balancing act. Our thoughts, no matter how painful or worrisome they may be, can also offer a counter thought. But trying to convince myself to believe in that counter thought or to make a willful effort to replace the unhelpful thought with its counter thought doesn't really make much of a difference in how I feel. I can tell myself all day long, that "this is an exciting time for her, she's making new friends, becoming independent blah blah blah" but it still doesn't take away any of the worry that's there. I worry because I care so much, so I find myself at a point where I can either find more peace appreciating the worry that comes naturally as a parent while also fully embracing how this is indeed a very exciting for my kid OR struggle to keep convincing myself "it's ok" OR finding ways to combat the loneliness and sadness. I chose the first option. Allowing BOTH opposites to co-exist in my mind and not getting myself stuck on either offers quite the shift in how this whole experience is perceived and felt. Sort of like holding a few eggs in one hand - each of value, but not holding them so tightly that one breaks.
Willingness to embrace the experience from a values based perspective.
What I have learned from this past year of having my older child abroad for school, is that there will be plenty of opportunities and moments where I will be challenged. I could not have possibly anticipated those moments and they have definitely tested me. There were nights of sleeplessness, consumed with worry and anxiety; there were frequent checks on Life 360 (if you know, you know); multiple text messages sent and when no response came soon enough, a follow up text and sometimes a call to follow up; there were countless hours on the internet to research and problem solve... Those moments were difficult and challenging but just like with the opposites of this world, those moments also produced insight, new information and a little more confidence in navigating through future issues. Recognizing what I had control of and what I didn't is a big part of this process. I can do only do what I can do, but the outcome was out of my hands. Allowing myself to focus on what I could actually do, then fully surrendering to the outcome.
To fully surrender, I needed to come from a very different place. I had to channel what really mattered to me at the moment; what the "big picture" was; what the "goal" was, to being able to have the willingness and strength to go through all of it in spite of the worries and fears, the work and stress. It was about finding the intrinsic motivation to help me through the tough times. And I found it in one of my core values that centered around being a mother. Digging deep and asking myself the following questions around this core value helped shaped not only my perspective about how to approach a situation, but also deciding on the actions I took:
How can I be most helpful now?
In the grand scheme of things, what really matters to me?
Will the actions I take distract me from what really matters/the big picture?
How can I best show up as the mother that I want to be right here in this moment?
None of this is easy. Being a parent is HARD!!! The worry never ends. It evolves over time, but it is still there. It ebbs and flows and instead of fighting it, I just learned how to float. Knowing that I have willingly and gladly accepted all that comes with being a mother including the worry, the pain and the stress that follows every single stage of parenthood, I can embrace every single bit of it. Why? Because at the end of the day, I get to be their mom, through all the good, the bad and the ugly, and I wouldn't want it any other way.
And that, my friends, is all that really matters to me.
Check out an earlier post about Preparing for an Empty Nest here.