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Heidi Stevens: Coping with the mixed emotions of a suddenly empty nest

Our dear friends have a daughter on the gymnastics team at the University of Michigan, so we found ourselves tuned into the Big Ten Network recently, marveling at the grace and strength of this young woman we adore and searching the crowd for her parents.

The meet was at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, so the stands were largely a sea of Illini blue and orange, dominated by those crazy striped bib overalls that look like a general contractor decided to ditch his tools and join the circus.

Plenty of Michigan parents wear them too, our friends assured us, but they opt for the more understated Michigan caps and giant yellow pompoms protruding from various necklines.

How wonderful, I thought, to have a ridiculous, physical, over-the-top way to express the love and pride you feel for your kid. How lovely to wear those feelings, literally, on your sleeve.

How much do I love my kid? Enough to wear these overalls in public. Maybe even on TV. Flattering? Nah. Fitting? Absolutely.

I started thinking about the parents whose college daughters and sons aren’t athletes or musicians or performers in some capacity that allows their parents to cheer them on with applause and pompoms, the parents who don’t have an obvious outlet for the love and pride that became no less ridiculous and over-the-top post-high school.

Some of my friends are there. Their first-born or last-born has left for college, and they think they’ll buckle under the weight of the longing.

“I hurt,” my sister-in-law told me about my niece leaving their Ohio home for Elon University in North Carolina. “I physically hurt when she’s gone.”

She’s also bursting with pride and relief that she successfully launched her child into college – gave her the tools and set her on a path toward self-sufficiency and fulfillment and difference-making; all the things you want most for your kids, even if another part of you most wants them back in your living room.

“It’s not a death. And it’s not a tragedy. But it’s not nothing, either,” Boston Globe columnist Beverly Beckham wrote in a 2006 essay that the newspaper reprints every August.

“I was the sun and they were the planets,” Beckham wrote. “And there was life on those planets, whirling, nonstop plans and parties and friends coming and going, and ideas and dreams and the phone ringing and doors slamming. And I got to beam down on them. To watch. To glow.

“And then they were gone, one after the other.”

I think it’s increasingly complicated to process the stew of emotions parents feel about their suddenly empty nests, because we’re stuck in this place that shames parents for hovering and caring long beyond what’s socially acceptable.

You can’t swing a smartphone without hitting an article about the pitfalls of modern parenting: We coddle and smother and wring our hands, while previous generations just slowed down the car and let the kids roll onto the dorm sidewalk with their stuff and their independence.

Move on, we’re told. Parents should give their children wings, we’re told.

“But children are not birds,” Beckham wrote. “Parents don’t let them go and build another nest and have all new offspring next year.”

No, we don’t. We wear pompoms and bib overalls. We don our parental love like a cloak against the sorrow that comes with goodbye.

We want to stay connected, and we do – through texts and Skype and social media. But it’s not the same as having them in your living room.

We want to be there, even if we know it’s better for them (and us) that we’re not. We want to cheer for our kids, even if they’re only competing for a girl’s affections or a perfect chemistry exam.

And we can feel sadness even as we cheer, even as we tend to our own full lives. That’s not helicopter parenting. It’s just parenting.

Contact Heidi Stevens at hstevens@tribune.com, or on Twitter: @heidistevens13.