The Empty Nest: A Long Overdue Update

I moved Johnny into his dorm at the University of Wisconin-Madison 242 days ago. Some days it feels like he's been gone many more days than this, but most days it feels like so much less. He remains everywhere in my house and my head. I still catch myself peeking into his bedroom, or calling out his name.

When he came home for Thanksgiving break, it felt like he'd been away on an extended vacation but was now finally home again! And when he came home for the long Winter break, it felt like he'd never left ... until he did. Both times, his leaving hurled me into a several day funk. Saying good-bye all over again both times was as hard as it had been the day I left him in Madison.  

He came home for Spring break, and its a bit of a blur because I had been so sick in March. But I do recall how I pepped talked myself into not feeling quite as sad because I knew he'd be done with school and home again in May. Yet the minute the door closed behind him, I cried for hours.

Family and friends, although well-meaning and unaware, had me a secret time frame in which I was allowed to be sad and mope around. So I no longer tell them when I am having a bad day, a day when I miss my son so intensely that all I want to do is stay in bed all day, because I know that my alloted time frame has passed. So I allow myself to feel sad for a few hours and then I pull myself out of the funk by planning a day when I can go visit him and take him to dinner, or I call him and when I hear how happy he is, it makes it all okay.

I used to think it would be difficult to sell my house when Johnny left for college because I raised him here, alone, through grade school, middle school, and high school. Those were the best years of my life to date. My house was the house where all the kids gathered. I had boys sleeping here every single weekend since grade school. I bought at what seems like thousands of frozen Jacks pizza, too many cans of Coke to count, and I made about a million pancakes. Many of those boys, who also left for college, are like sons to me. And I miss them. I miss all of them and all of it - the joy and the crazy they brought into my life and home as they navigagted childhood and teenage years. The house now feels like a ghost town of memories and there are days I would actually like to leave here and start the life Rick and I have planned. 

I have adjusted to Johnny to being gone. But it's taken many months, and it's been a deliberate effort and it's been really, really hard. I am now at a place where I have settled in to my new normal. I find that I do enjoy my time alone. I enjoy the quiet in my house, especially on weekends. When I hear a siren now on Saturday night, I smile, when Johnny was home, I'd feel my pulse race and pray that my son or one of "my boys" was not in danger. I like eating whatever I want, whenever I please. I like not sharing the TV. I like not wearing a bra.

It did get easier. But not until I made up my mind to let him go. To just let go, and to trust in things I can't see, or understand - I suppose that's faith?

I have come to grips with the fact that my boy grew up and I look forward now to getting to know the man that my son is becoming. I see the transformation right before my eyes and it's exciting. I daydream about him accepting the Nobel Peace Prize and I think about who he might marry and grandbabies!

I am happy to report that Johnny loves Madison, his classes, dorm life, his new friends and old friends. He's conquered Calculus and Analytical Chemistry and made the Deans List. He's landed a Research Assistant position at the UW Hospital doing exactly what he hopes to do in his carreer. He has a townhouse rented for his Sophmore year with four old friends from home and four new friends he's met at school. He looks different. He dresses different. He eats different foods now. But when I see him or talk to him, he is the same sweet little boy that I bet all my hopes and dreams on 18 years ago.


I got an arrow tattoo a few years ago to remind myself that life moves forward, not back, sometimes under great tension. But we must keep our eye on the target, aim, and then fire. Because if we don't fire the arrow, if we don't let go, we continue to think that we are somehow in control. And that's been my biggest lesson of all, accepting that I am not in control. Of anything, really.

Moms of kids still at home - breath it all in- it really is over in the blink of an eye.

Empty nest moms, how are you?

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Jannis, thank you for sharing. It’s so nice to hear other honest moms. Congratulations on raising yourself an independent young man! Bittersweet, isnt it? I am certain my son will stay in Madison next summer, too. In fact, he will be commuting there 2 days a week this summer to work his research assistant job and I suspect he will find a friend to stay with on the days he works and stay in Madison part time.

Lisa Thorstenson, C9SC Owner

Beautiful and so heartbreakingly true. My son just finished up his sophomore year at UW-Madison. My heart lurches every time he leaves after coming home for a few days. This summer he’s opted to stay in his apartment and work full time. I’m sad about not having his face around to see everyday but I know he’ll have such a great time in Madison. Taking the time to grieve for as long a necessary is exactly right. And accepting the new normal. Congrats to you on having raised a wonderful young man!


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