As parents, we have all heard about it—on a television series or in a movie perhaps, or maybe even firsthand experience. It begins when your oldest child moves away from home for the first time, and heads off to start the next stage of life in college. The empty nest has in the past been referred to as a syndrome, characterized by an extreme sense of loss, depression and potential substance abuse and marital conflicts. All parents want their children to become independent and make their mark on the world, but when the time finally arrives it can be somewhat overwhelming. Here is a description of what has seemed to work for me so far. By no means is it exhaustive, and I am learning by doing on a daily basis.
As background I am a married father of two daughters aged 17 and 18. My eldest aspires to be an engineer and chose McGill University in Montreal, both for its strong academic record with respect to engineering and the bargain it represents compared to US or European universities given the current favorable exchange rates. My youngest, now in her senior year of high school, has set her sights on medicine—she still has not decided where she wants to study, but it is still early days and I am quite happy to encourage and support her passion and perseverance. She is currently enrolled in the Health Science program in the local school district, in addition to her required curriculum. I must admit that when she arrives home in the late morning after her classes with her medical scrubs, I almost do a double take because this new look seems almost surreal, but at the same time very natural.
My oldest daughter started her first year of university in Canada last month. I was there to help her get settled, of course keeping my emotions in check. We helped her to shop for the essentials of dorm life (in a coed dormitory, which was something entirely new for all of us), and indoctrinated her into the finer aspects of French-Canadian cuisine. My wife was teary-eyed but in a happy way, and when the time came to finally say goodbye, emotions ran high but again, in a very positive way. As we were driving to the airport for the journey home that morning, my wife and I spoke about the things we will miss, and the utter pride and joy we felt for our talented and precocious daughter.
Now, the youngest is less than one year behind her, and then the nest becomes truly empty. The coping skills I have used so far are relatively simple—maintaining a positive attitude, nurturing from afar and supporting her in her next great adventure in life. It is easy even at this early stage to over-worry and overthink about what her daily routine holds. Will she “fit in”, will she become isolated in her studies, or will she develop a healthy balance between her course work and her social activities? It is at this point that I remind myself that she made through learning to crawl, walk, ride a bike, drive a car, graduate from High School, and even go on a date or two. She has made many new friends and is socially active, and most importantly, recognizes the difference between what is right and what is wrong. I have learned to minimize this worry, and trust her that her good judgement and wise decisions will keep her away from potentially bad situations. Montreal is, after all a very big city, and quite different from the suburbia where she has spent her entire life until now.
I have on occasion gone into my oldest daughter’s room late at night, looking at some of her childhood memories, smelling her scented candles, and occasionally, crying with great joy, not sadness. Unknown to me before, my wife does the same, and afterwards goes into my youngest daughter’s room and holds her close with a smile on her face, perhaps imagining what life will be like one year from now.
The urge has often arisen to send spontaneous text messages expressing pride and joy, or simply “I miss you.” I am learning not to smother her with adulations, and compliments, and understand that freshman academic life is both challenging and stressful for her. When she has free time and wants to speak, I know she will call.
I am extremely proud of both of my daughters and all of their accomplishments, and know that they have been raised in a house where family and kindness are of singular importance. And although I know that I am only halfway through the process, I am preparing myself for the next chapter when the nest will be truly empty. And only then will I fully feel the emotional impact. And I will not face it with a profound sense of loss, but rather a sense of great joy, and pride that I was able to make what little contribution I could to help my both of my daughters’ transition to adulthood.
Although I am far from an expert on this whole subject matter which is never steady-state, and knowing that the situation is very different with sons than with daughters, from a man’s perspective, I can offer the following:
Always be supportive, no matter what changes during the course of this physical separation, and know that no matter what happens in the future, the love between a father and daughter can only grow stronger. You will see her more often than you think.
Trust that she will make the right decisions, and don’t offer too much advice. She will share with you what she wants, and will ask for advice when she needs it.
Maintain a positive attitude—not just in this situation, but in all aspects of life, as your daughter, more than anyone, likely senses your general well-being with as little as a text message or phone call.
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