For some parents, their child leaving home is a trauma comparable to bereavement. And having friends tell them that it's natural and inevitable only makes them feel worse. Natural it may be, but that doesn't make it easy.
First, you must be kind to yourself. Some will try to reassure you, usually with banal, even patronising clichés. Many will respond with bewildered irritation, however, assuring you that the day their kids left home was the happiest of their life. Don't allow such people to make you feel ashamed or guilty. It is perfectly natural to be upset.
Above all, there is the sense of loss. People often have children because they long for the comfort and security of a bustling, loving family. The home then becomes a sort of cosy little nest into which they can withdraw after a day spent battling traffic, commuters, and difficult work colleagues. Many people experience a great deal of loneliness or insecurity before starting a family and, when the children leave, fear returning to that scary place.
Parents also lose their sense of meaning and purpose. For many, raising children becomes their role in life. It is the reason they work so hard, keep fit and healthy, even get up in the morning! And now that has gone. When children leave, parents often wonder not only what they should do but who they are. They have lost their identity. The day their youngest leaves for college, 25 or 30 years of their life comes to an end. Often, people can barely remember what it was like not to have children under their roof. Some even feel there is no point going on, that they are now just treading water and waiting to die.
If your children are leaving home, preparation is key. First, you need to be psychologically prepared. You must accept that this is happening. And remember, you can choose how to approach it. If you wish to see it in terms of danger and threat, then you will suffer even more. Instead, try to see this as a big adventure, both for you and for your child. Maybe they will blossom when free of the family home. Or maybe they will meet someone lovely and start a family. The more you focus on the danger, the worse you will feel.
Not only must you prepare yourself, however, you must also prepare them. Knowing that you have done all in your power to help them cope with life in the real world will give you peace of mind. So consider practical matters first. Do they know how to wash their clothes? Will they be able to balance their monthly budget? You also need to make it clear that they can return home whenever they like, that there is always a bed for them, and that there is no shame in this: not every marriage works, and not everyone enjoys college life.
More generally, try to prepare them for the darker side of life. Fathers in particular often suffer deep, tortuous fear when their daughter leaves home. No matter how strong, smart or independent she may be, the world can be a hard place. You need to have a frank discussion, especially if your daughter is still in her teens and is leaving for college. You probably underestimate how much she knows, but, all the same, talking about things like drugs being slipped in her drink will put your mind at ease.
Finally, you need to ensure that it is easy for them to stay in touch. Again, make it clear that you are always there if they just need to chat. Communication is vital. Don't assume they know they can phone you if they feel sad or that they can return home if their relationship fails. Take nothing for granted. If you are a bit of a technophobe, try familiarizing yourself with Skype, Facebook, Emails, and so on. And find reasons for keeping in regular contact. Do you have something in common? Maybe you share a love of boxing, British comedy, or Blues music. If you do, try and make this the reason you message them. The last thing you want is to become a pest.
Again, it must be said that your pain and sadness are natural. Someone you love is no longer there. Indeed, if they have left for a college hundreds of miles away you may not see them again for months. So give yourself time to grieve. According to psychologists, it can take up to two years to adjust to no longer being an involved mother. Try to let things run their course, neither wallowing in self-pity nor rushing for a new life. If you feel like shedding a tear, shed a tear; if you feel you'd like to go and have a drink in the local bar, do so. Above all, acknowledge how you feel. Do not allow others to dictate. Just because your friend wasn't as close to her kids and felt relieved when they left, that doesn't mean you must react in the same way. Some people have such intrusive, overbearing personalities that they seem almost offended when others do not share their outlook or experiences.
If you find that you just can't cope, however, you could try counselling. Do not tell your children how unhappy you are or how much you miss them – that truly would be selfish and unfair (especially if they are happy). But there is no shame in seeking help. You could also try keeping a diary or journal, recording your ups and downs as each day passes. Simply writing such things down can in itself be cathartic.
Sadly, we have abandoned the tradition of marking new life phases. Maybe you could conduct your own, private "letting go" ceremony, in which you ritually or symbolically let go of your children and your parenting role. Your own form of ritual needn't be dramatic or self-indulgent. You could simply plant a tree in the back garden, for example, or burn a childrearing book you regularly consulted during their infancy.
As any couple will tell you, once the baby arrives, sex, romance, and intimacy suffer. People learn how to be parents and forget how to be lovers. Now is the time to revive the love and romance. You could even try counselling. Marriage guidance isn't just for those having difficulties. It may help to talk through the kind of relationship you wish to build now the house is empty again. Raising children leaves people with very little time. Not only can children be exhausting and worrying, they are also expensive, which means lots of hard work. The years fly by in a whir of noise, diapers, hormones, exams, etc. and couples do not notice how much the other is changing. Career and family alters people. Your partner may not be the same person you married, and you may not have realized. Now that the kids are gone and, maybe, you are working part-time, you have the chance to rediscover this person.
You could take up a new hobby together. Try something neither of you have ever done before, something fun and non-competitive. Or maybe the two of you could work towards something new, buying a small, run-down cottage or farm building and fixing it up, for example. Do not try and return to the way you were 20 or 30 years ago. So long as the bond and the love are still there, allow something new to evolve.
It cannot be stressed too much that self-care is not the same as selfishness. On the contrary, the last thing your child needs, as he or she navigates their way through college, or through a new life in the city, is to feel that you are back home sad and lonely. If you want to help them, take care of yourself. The knowledge that you are coping will keep them strong.
Start by taking a look at your health and fitness. Parents tend to focus so much on their children that they neglect their own bodies, grabbing snacks as they rush to pick their daughter up from school or their son from soccer practise. But your future happiness now depends on getting your health in good shape. So cut down on the drinking, eat healthier, more balanced meals, and commit yourself to a new exercise regimen (preferably out of doors and with other people).
Think back to life before the children were born. Were there any passions or hobbies you abandoned when you started a family – maybe something that was too expensive or time-consuming? Or maybe you enjoyed some kind of creative pursuit, like portrait painting. Did you always dream of writing a novel? Or a play? Now is the time to take them up again. Or maybe you could try something completely new.
As with so many things in life, it is all a question of perspective. You choose how to see this situation. Instead of a sad end, see it as an exciting new phase filled with new opportunities. Be fearless. Throw yourself into everything: pottery, woodwork, photography, Italian, community theater, art history, bird watching etc. Others decide to revive a career, or even to begin a new one. How about returning to college to finish that degree in fine arts? You always wanted to do a PhD, well now's your chance!
Do not underestimate the pain and trauma that can follow when a child leaves home. But take some comfort from the fact that everyone must go through it. Indeed, it might almost be described as an archetypal experience. And it is one you will adjust to.