My New Life as an Empty-Nester

By Kim Strobel

August 28, 2019

Learning to Appreciate All the ‘Last Times’

If you’ve been following me on social media at all this year, you’ve probably seen me having little meltdowns about my son, Spencer, leaving for college this fall. I’ve spent the last few months trying to soak up every single moment with him (and even considered cancelling a trip with my husband to have just a bit MORE time with him!).

It’s been a huge source of anxiety for me. It seemed like the moment he would leave was approaching way too quickly—yet somehow the weeks and days were also passing in a way that dragged out the torture. 

Then last Monday, it happened. We drove him to Bloomington, got his dorm room all set up … and walked back to our car and headed home without him.

Spencer is embarking on an incredible journey where he will be truly on his own for the first time. Yet, I could only think of the many “last times” I’ve experienced with my son.

If I Could Turn Back Time

With the amount of anxiety I’ve felt over my boy leaving home, Cher’s anthem could be my theme song!

I carried this perfect boy in my belly. And those nine months are when I felt the most settled and sure about my son’s safety.

I’d be lying if I said there weren’t many times over the years that I wished he could return to the womb for my own peace of mind! I mean, he was nestled there so safely, getting everything he needed from his momma.

The first time I saw and heard his heartbeat on the ultrasound, I was brought to tears. I was immediately in love!

I can remember just a few short months later feeling those first flutters and little kicks from tiny feet. I simply couldn’t believe this tiny bundle growing inside of me would soon share my life with me. 

And then the day he was born … seeing this black-haired sumo wrestler of a baby getting all cleaned up and gently placed in my arms. I didn’t even realize a human heart could hold so much love!

But over the next 19 years, my heart continued to expand as I raised, guided, comforted, and loved this beautiful boy.

One moment he was a baby resting his head on his momma’s shoulder, showering her with a hundred kisses a day. In the blink of an eye, he was a fast-and-furious toddler wanting to spend every moment playing outside.

All too soon he was in elementary school, an athletic, independent kid who loved sleepovers with friends (but still wanted to hold his momma’s hand … when no one was looking). Then the middle school years hit, and my boy was struggling with his identity—and pulling away from me a bit in favor of spending guy time with my husband.

By his junior/senior year of high school, Spencer had regained his footing, grown to a strapping 6’ 3”, discovered new confidence, found a level of comfort in himself. And with that renewed confidence and comfort, he found his way back to his momma.

Thank goodness!

So Many ‘Last Times’

I’ve known this new chapter in Spencer’s life was coming for a while. And throughout the days, weeks, years leading to this moment, I’ve been hit with waves of memories.

I’ve been catapulted back in time to the boat races we used to have in the creek … the hours and hours we spent playing together when we both had summers off … and so many other big and little moments.

And with every memory, I wonder how it all went so quickly. I try to recall exactly how it felt. I wonder if I really, truly paid enough attention when I was in the moment. 

And then I cry.

I cry because I worry some of my memories have lost their vividness. I cry because I want so much to go back and relive just one day of that old life. I cry because my sense of self wasn’t nearly so strong back then, and that we’re both so different now.

I cry because I’ve experienced so many “last times” with Spencer. And because I didn’t know that those moments were “lasts.”

  • The last time he needed me to hold his little hands and cut his fingernails
  • The last time he wanted to be rocked
  • The last time I carried him down the steps for breakfast
  • The last time he held my hand as we walked down the sidewalk
  • The last time he ran up to me and jumped in my arms
  • The last time I read a bedtime story to him
  • The last time he needed me to pick him up from a sporting practice
  • The last night he was a full-time member of our household.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could always know when the “last time” was as it was happening?

Pre-Grieving the Inevitable

The weeks leading up to last Monday were an emotional minefield.

There was one full day last month—literally from seven in the morning to four in the afternoon—that I spent crying. My husband finally had to come drag me out of my office with the promise that I really was going to make it through this.

The next day, I was back to my chipper self. I did a little self-coaching and firmly told myself that mothers throughout time have survived seeing their babies leave the nest … and so would I. 

I reminded myself that Spencer is independent and confident (so much more than I was at his age), and this is a necessary step in his growth and development.

And these thoughts would soothe me for a few weeks.

Then the grief would return, and I’d long to go back in time for a redo, to start our journey as mother and son all over again.

And apparently my grieving wasn’t very covert. My husband told me one evening a couple of weeks ago that Spencer was worried about how I’m going to handle him leaving.

So how have I handled it? By making jokes, of course.

I told Spencer that Scott and I are going to make like the late, great Prince and “party like it’s 1999.” That as we drove away from his campus, I was going to proudly wave a “We’re empty nesters!” banner out the window while blasting loud music.

Of course, all I got from Spencer was a “Yeah, right, Mom!” But I know the jokes helped ease his apprehension just as much as it did mine.

Move-In Day … and the Aftermath

When move-in day arrived, I was ready. I’d spent weeks coaching myself, telling myself to be strong. And reminding myself that I’d made it through much more difficult things in my life (panic disorder and a painful divorce, anyone?).

My goal for the day was to let Spencer know his momma was gonna be just fine. To tell him how proud I am of his independence and confidence. To show him that I’m made of strong stuff, just like he is.

So I did. 

Sure I choked up on our shuttle ride back to his dorm. And I saw Spencer checking my eyes for tears and signs of distress. But I stayed strong, leaned on my husband for support, gave Spencer a big smile, and told him:

“These are going to be some of the best years of your life, Buddy. I’m so excited for you!”

With one last hug, I walked away, leaving him in his dorm room. For this part, I remained proudly stoic. 

And then when I got home, I ate my weight in chocolate chip cookies. And possibly checked the “Find Friends” app several times to reassure myself he was OK.

The next day, he texted me to say he was hanging out with some new basketball buddies he’d met, and they were going to the courts after having lunch together. He told me, “I could get used to this, Mom.”

That replaced the hurt in my heart with true happiness! Happiness that Spencer is ready to grow his wings. Happiness that he’s independent and ready for this next chapter. And happiness that he is happy.

I know I will crack a few more times in the weeks to come. I know this won’t be an easy transition. I know that the boy I left will be different the next time I see him.

But for today, I’m good. I’m grateful. I’m happy. And I’m so darn proud and lucky that I’m his momma!

Help a Happiness Coach Out: I know my emotions might be in the gutter the next few months, so hit up the comments below and let’s commiserate over some of your own “baby bird leaving the nest” stories!

  • I can totally relate, My son is a junior at UAlbany. I still get emotional every time he abondons me after a school break. Last week I not only drove my son to college, my daughter is a freshman at UAlbany too. Saying goodbye to each child was double the emotional rollercoaste.

    The reality is setting in and I often go into my kids rooms to feel their presence, of course shedding a tear.

  • Oh Kim…thanks now I am crying! With my “baby” starting kindergarten this year and feeling like an empty nester I am soaking up every moment with my girls because I know how fast it is going to go. I will need your coaching in 10 years to be as strong as you! You got this!

  • Kim,
    This is such a great post! I’ve often wished that I would have known that the last times were last times when they were happening! My oldest just started her second year of college (it does get a little easier–it helps that she’s happier this year), and my baby is a senior in high school (I’m in denial about next fall–she’s looking at a college 5 1/2 hours away!). I keep reminding myself that this is what our end goal is–not for them to live in our basement! (Although, I really do think I’d be okay with that… 🙂

  • Hi Kim,
    Just wanted to let you know, I wrote that same story several years back about my son. I sent him 12 hours away from Evansville, to Orangeburg, SC! I had the dreary days, full of tears and even fears, but one Sunday evening, my only son, Manoah, called me and my husband and thanked us. I asked “What for?” He said, “For telling me NO; for teaching me to finish what I’ve started; teaching me to eat an elephant one bite at a time; for not letting me win all the time and making me earn the things I wanted…” He’d met people that had no guidance and were experiencing recklessness in college. He met other young men who did even know their natural fathers or had mothers who gave them away. He met young women who didn’t value themselves and did not believe they were worth “the wait” and he was GRATEFUL we did what we did! Yeah, I had arrived. I was blessed that this was not a speech he was giving at my funeral–he gave me flowers while I could still smell them!
    I still had to let my baby girl go in a few short years later, but I was able to do it better–the practice with him truly paid off. I do believe we do want to know if we taught them enough, showed them, told them, built into their beings so that they are be able to stand toe-to-toe with adversity or against the wall with a song in their hearts and a belief system that will sustain them for a lifetime. Thanks for sharing your story, but I will be honest with you–it just gets better. Last spring, Manoah received his Master’s Degree from George Washington University (DC) and he came home for SIX WEEKS! I thought we were out of “last times”too, but it was so nice to be with him, sharing time with him and listening to him continuing to dream and plan. Blessed we are–cherish and enjoy every moment.

  • I dropped my daughter off at ASU two weeks ago. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done, but at the same time I was so overjoyed for her and this new chapter in her life.
    The finding friends app is becoming my friend! 😂
    But in all seriousness, when I know she is ok and more comfortable as the days go by I, myself, am ok.
    As moms, our worry never goes away. It changes as they grow but it is always there.
    My daughter is finding her own way- finding her “people”, her routine and her Comfort.

    Last August I started a new habit which was to begin my day with prayer and meditation. During this time I pray, I read my devotional and I write in my journal. I realized the other day that all of that was preparing me for this time. It was preparing me to be able to speak words of encouragement, positivity, confidence and bravery into my daughter as she has begun this new journey.

    • Bridget, we do share a common thread as moms. Thank you for sharing this. I am overjoyed that you are making the commitment to these habits and that you are seeing the results. They do prepare us for life’s moments.

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