Archive for Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Social stew: Struggling to fill the empty nest

October 11, 2006

College -- bah humbug. My littlest chick has flown the coop and joined the flock of Jayhawks at Kansas University, and I am one lonely mother hen. It has been six weeks, so you would expect I would have adjusted by now, but no such luck.

The first two weeks felt like sending her off to camp. The second two weeks, I began to sense the change, but was so caught up in her excitement that I, too, was excited. During the past two weeks, however, my eyes have opened to the harsh reality that life as I have known it has changed.

New friends, new classes, new clothes, new books, new dorm room and all the new furnishings to go in it have kept the excitement at an all time, once-in-a-lifetime high for my daughter. In sharp contrast, I wander around this big house, which is now uncharacteristically quiet, like a lost dog looking for a home. A typical meal around here these days consists of a chicken breast divided for two and one can of green beans microwaved in a cereal bowl. That doesn't thrill me at all.

It doesn't help that I am a bonafide, 100 percent dyed-in-the-wool groupie for my kids. For years, my life revolved around dance recitals, 4-H, PTO and kids' sports. So, in recent weeks, the question has haunted me: How does one adjust to life without kids? I don't have a clear-cut answer yet, but it is coming to me, in stages, one lesson at a time. I don't know how I am supposed to react, but I am quickly learning how NOT to react.

When I went into my daughter's room the other day to look for something, I felt a pang of something familiar, yet missing. The room still smelled like her; a combination of shampoo, perfume and her favorite candle. Artifacts of her high school days remained, but all the good stuff was gone -- photos, books and jewelry; things that marked the room as her special territory. I called my friend for support. "Well, for heaven's sake, she didn't die," my friend chastised. "What do you want her to do -- move home?" That was Lesson Number One.

I missed my daughter so much, I decided to call and hear her voice. Breathing heavily, she answered, "Hi, Mom, I can only talk a minute. I am trying to catch the bus." She humored me by answering my questions: What time do you go to bed? What do you eat? What did you get on that last paper you wrote? At one point, she chuckled and said, "I'm sorry, Mom. I thought you said, 'what are you wearing today?'" "I did say that," I grumbled. "Jeans and a T-shirt," she said crossly. Oops. I could tell I had crossed the line. You know the line -- the one that separates supportive mothers from micro-managing control freaks. I hung up, stopping short of asking when she had last flossed. That was Lesson Number Two.

Yesterday, a news program ran a segment on empty nest syndrome. Experts had labeled controlling mothers "helicopter moms," defined as mothers who hover over their children's lives. I kept score as they presented the criteria used to identify such ridiculous behavior. Thankfully, I didn't make the cut, and my treatment won't include a support group for losers addicted to their kids. No, I don't do their homework. And no, I haven't sabotaged a relationship I didn't feel was in their best interest. But the rest -- well, the rest pretty much applied to me. That was Lesson Number Three.

So as of last night, I am on a mission to change. My plan is to stop sweating the small stuff, reconnect with my own personal hobbies, and offer advice to my children on a solicited-only basis. Time will tell if the plan is successful. For now, all I can do is give it the old college try.

-- Marcia Hallenbeck McFarlane, who grew up in Leavenworth County, now lives in Johnson County. She can be reached via e-mail at

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