For some, the day their child leaves home is the worst of their life, for others the best! Either way, every parent goes through it. And the best way to cope is by looking to the future and setting new goals.
First, you must be true to your own feelings. When your children leave home, you may be surprised by the range and intensity of your emotions. The only way to recover is to acknowledge and accept them.
When upset and vulnerable, people naturally turn to family and friends. Unfortunately, some take perverse pleasure in assuring you that they couldn't wait for their children to move out. Feeling a bit fragile, many take this to heart and assume they are being soppy and weak. Don't fall into that trap. Don't allow other people to dictate how you feel. There isn't a correct way to respond when someone leaves home: if you want to cry, then cry. And don't feel guilty for being depressed or for not wanting to socialize.
In a sense, you are mourning. And mourning is a healthy and necessary process. You are adjusting to the fact that someone you love is no longer there. The more you resist the pain and sadness, the harder it will be to recover.
Of course, the sort of relationship you had with your children makes a difference. If the teenage years were difficult and you quarrelled a great deal, you may find it harder to let them go. Some part of you yearns and strains to go back and put things right.
If the relationship was good and happy, on the other hand, it may be easier to cope. This sounds paradoxical, but the same is often true of bereavement. When people lose someone they loved, and with whom they were happy, they cry and suffer and long to have them back. But they also remember the good times. The memories are positive and free of guilt. Dysfunctional relationships, however, are harder to process because we feel we ought to have done better.
People often talk of needy or dependent children, who rely on their parents to bail them out of financial trouble, etc. But parents can also be dependent. This is especially true when the children are in their 20s or 30s before they leave home. For example, many need their children to distract them and their partner from a failing marriage.
Others cannot face life on their own and need their children for company or emotional support. This is especially common when the parents met when they were young and had their first child soon after. If your partner then died, or the two of you separated, you may be facing life on your own for the first time.
A parent will often claim to miss their child because the two of them were so close. But the word "close" means different things to different people. To some, it simply means pleasure in another's company and in the intimacy they share. But it can also mean dependency. And some parents display the same possessiveness as a romantic partner.
Your first goal must therefore be to develop or strengthen self-reliance. We all need to feel we can rely on ourselves both practically and psychologically. And when we do, it gives us a sense of peace and security and makes us more confident and assertive.
As has already been pointed out, parents can be dependent on their children as well as vice versa. This is especially true of single parents who raised a child of the opposite sex. A single father, for example, may come to rely on his teenage daughters to advise him on what to wear, what to eat, etc., and to generally make a fuss of him.
A single mother may come to rely on her more practical son to mend a broken window or change the oil in the car, and so on (obviously this isn't always true – many single parents are immensely strong and self-reliant, especially when they have been single parents since the children were very small). Indeed, in some families the children seem more mature than the parents.
So, you must first become used to relying on yourself. Try making a list of all the practical matters for which you had come to depend on your children. Making such a list will prevent you being overwhelmed. You could even categorize them; under "car," for example, you could write "learn how to check pressure in tires" and so on, ticking them off as you go. Don't try to do too much at once. Knowing you can rely on yourself will give you a sense of peace with every tick you make.
More often, parents rely on their children for company. This is particularly true of those whose marriage is faltering, or has ended altogether. Sometimes, quite naturally, a child is felt to be a soulmate. And many parents consider them more a best friend than a child. Obviously, it is natural and healthy to love your children. But coming to depend on them in this way, for company, support, etc., is dangerous – for both you and them.
Meeting new people and establishing new friendships becomes harder as you age. In your teens and twenties, the majority of those in your age group are single, childless and looking to meet new people. By the time your children leave home, this has all changed.
To be more precise, the real difficulty is not meeting new people, or even making new friends, but establishing intimacy. And it is important to keep the distinction in mind. When your children leave home, you ought to make socializing a central goal. And you must do this for your children as well as yourself. They will find it difficult enough to make their way in the world and build relationships of their own without worrying about you at home, lonely and depressed.
No matter what your age, the best friendships tend to begin with a shared passion. Of course, such mutual interests guarantee nothing. You may meet someone who seems nice enough and who shares your love of French cinema, or British comedy, or whatever it may be, only to find that you just don't click. The key is perseverance. And when you do meet someone whose company you enjoy, don't let the friendship slip away. Take advantage of your new freedom (and your empty home) to invite them round for dinner.
In a sense, one's children are like works of art. You bring a baby into the world and then spend the next decade molding that child into a certain shape. Bertrand Russell, for example, once observed that you will be happy if you can "gradually build up something that you are glad to see coming into existence," and that for many this is provided by their children.
When their children then leave home, many parents feel the sort of emptiness an author feels when he finishes writing a novel. Now is the time to look inward. Raising children is an all-consuming business. And when combined with the need to earn money, many find they haven't even time to read a book, let alone do anything else. When the children leave home, however, the parents may suddenly remember an old dream or ambition: to take a course in sculpting, to learn Spanish, to write short stories, and so on.
Best of all would be a new creative outlet. Do not allow the fear of ridicule to stop you. And do not imagine you are too old. One of the most admired novels published in the U.K. in 2017, Darke, was the debut novel of 70-year-old Rick Gekoski. It is also important to keep an open mind. Retired men, for example, are often persuaded by their wives to come with them to ballroom dancing, only to find to their surprise that they enjoy themselves and cannot wait to go back.
If you have the time and money, it may also be worth pursuing a course of therapy. Even today, many still think of this as something you only undertake when mentally ill. But there are many types of therapy, some of them focussed on improving the healthy rather than healing the sick. Jungian therapy, for example, might be worth exploring.
If therapy is not for you, how about meditation, or yoga? A routine that combines the two may work wonders, especially if you were to develop some kind of spiritual belief as well. Those seeking to fill the hole left by their children often return to their childhood faith. Those who have lost this, however, may find comfort in Eastern Mysticism and the writings of people like Alan Watts and Eckhart Tolle. Or, if such things mean little to you, why not explore philosophy? Even popular science, or the great nature poets, like Wordsworth and Coleridge, might fill that hole.
Above all, avoid self-pity. Allowing your children the freedom to live their own lives is an important gift, as important as feeding and educating them.