The Kids Are Gone - Now What?
Since it’s the beginning of the school year, I have an influx of parents in my practice working through the grief and even bewilderment of having their kids gone.
This happens at several different stages in parenting life:
During school age years, when stay-at-home moms suddenly have lots of quiet hours that they haven’t seen in many years.
During middle school-aged years, when kids are suddenly leaning into some independence and start to prioritize friendships over family time
When they begin to “leave the nest” after high school – for college, missions, relationships, or any other number of paths.
Photo by ian dooley on Unsplash
Often this leaves parents in a whole mixture of feelings. It can be really difficult to watch your children grow into a space where we no longer feel “needed.”
On the other hand, the idea of all of the extra time that should suddenly appear in your schedule can feel really exciting. Or overwhelming. Or intimidating. Or lonely. Or… not.
The reality here is that everyone deals with these situations differently.
While you may have planned to do cartwheels through your living room the minute you got home from dropping off your freshly-minted kindergartener – walking into an empty living room that has been full of preschool and toddler energy for the past five years can be really daunting.
You may have dreamed of getting SO. MUCH. DONE. when you finally just had some space, or some time, or some quiet.
Or, maybe the time snuck up on you, and you are staring down these hours like a deer in the headlights.
Where do you even start?
What do you do now?
Who even are you when no one is screaming “mom” at you?
Treat Yo’ Self
Parents – I would like to be one of the voices yelling congratulations at you, first and foremost, for making it to this stage. It’s a BIG DEAL. YOU DID IT. You’re AMAZING.
Teaching our children independence throughout their childhood is pretty much our MAIN job. And even though there will still be lots of hurdles after this – you have hit a big milestone on the way there.
So, regardless of how lonely, or quiet, or strange you are feeling about it – PLEASE – take a minute and tell yourself that you’re pretty amazing for even making it to the point that this little human has begun to turn into a bigger, more-closely-resembling-an-adult, human.
Let yourself have that moment.
Go ahead, treat yourself. Go on a celebratory date with your spouse, take yourself out for ice cream, get your hair or nails done, or invite your other mom-friends in this same place with you over for coffee and a chat (because – look! No kids around to interrupt! How strange is this?)
Do Some Self-Care
First of all, let me point out that “self-care” and “treat yourself” are two different categories.
That was on purpose.
Self-care is doing the things that need done to make sure that you are feeling at your best. It’s 15-20 minutes (at least!) of taking time to understand exactly what you need.
Self-care can be:
Taking a walk
Resting your eyes
Going to therapy
Sitting in silence
Calling/Meeting up with a friend
Saying “no” to something you don’t want to do
Having a dance party in your kitchen
Listening to music/a podcast you enjoy
Reading a book
I could go on… and on.. and on. But essentially, self-care is taking the time to do what your body/mind/soul are telling you that you need.
Not for your kids, not for your spouse, not for your friends.
Take Your Time
Now that you have some extra time on your hands, it can be easy to fill it with what everyone else tells you that you should be doing.
You should really do these workout videos!
You should start your own business!
You should go back to school!
You should have more babies!
You should clean the house – top to bottom! Repaint every room! Start those Pinterest projects you’ve had on your boards for years!
Unless you have been chomping at the bit to get started on one of those things every day for the years you’ve had kids at home, don’t do any of those things.
At least, not yet.
First, take some time to remember who you are. It takes a lot to parent for years at a time. You’ve probably changed a lot in that time – and, unfortunately, most of us don’t exactly keep in touch with the deeper levels of ourselves when we have kids to chase around.
You may or may not want to finish that degree – what if you’ve realized that you’re passionate about something else completely?
Take time to process the space between what everyone else is telling you that you should do next, and the things that you have daydreamed about for years – or used to, when you had time for that.
Give yourself permission to try some new things now that you have time to experiment. Read and research about topics that fascinate you. Let your creativity start to flow. You may be surprised at what you come up with.
Let Yourself Feel
Look, this is a very real, common, and valid stage of grieving for parents. And just like any other grief, it looks different for everyone.
Instead of distracting yourself with a full calendar, make sure that you are taking the time that you need to acknowledge that your feelings are there.
Do what works for you. Journal. Talk things out with a therapist.
But know that you’re not alone, and just because your kids aren’t there as much doesn’t mean that you are no longer needed or valued. From here, your role just changes a bit.
Sound like you? Need some support through a parenting transition? I'd love to hear from you. You can schedule with me directly by using my online scheduler (linked right here!) or by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brooke Williams, MA, LPC, is a licensed professional counselor serving South Carolina. You can read more about her here.