As my oldest began applying to college last fall, I remember feeling like it was yesterday that I was looking at preschools for her. Then day camps. I had so much anxiety about putting my kid on a bus to and from camp each day that I began worrying about it long before she was old enough to go. When it came time to send her to sleepaway camp, forget it, I was a wreck. Thoughts of all the things that could go wrong in my absence disturbed my sleep. Then my husband left, and for a long time, that disturbed my sleep more.
When “normalcy” returned, i.e., our new normal, I went back to my old worrying ways, but not entirely. Thankfully, I had come to possess enough self-awareness and self-control to suppress the sometimes irrational thoughts that popped into my head so that they wouldn’t paralyze me and, as a result, my daughter, along with her siblings. Time went on, and as a single parent of three with full physical custody, I had no choice but to give my kids more freedom than I ordinarily would have at their respective ages. I put my oldest on a plane by herself, allowed her to take the train to the city with her friends (and later alone), and watched her drive away in my car not long after she got her license to go to my mother’s house 45 minutes away by highway. Despite being nervous, I pushed my fears aside because I knew it was best for her. And me.
But no matter how much of a challenge it was to take a step back and let my daughter grow up with increasing independence, sending her to college this past fall presented a whole new set of worries for me to confront and the return of some old, and dare I say, bad habits, including over-obsessing about what could happen. As had been told to me for years by mothers of children older than mine, the bigger the kids, the bigger the problems, which meant I had plenty to worry about and protect her from, and, in my mind, now their permission to do it.
On move-in day, just before I left my daughter’s New York City dorm room, I told my daughter the story of the Central Park jogger and the preppy murder, two cases which dominated the press for months during my childhood. For good measure, I also threw in a little about Kitty Genovese, too, as well as a warning about spiked punch bowls. (Yes, I’m well aware how my choice of examples shows my age.) My daughter, and, embarrassingly enough her roommate, looked at me as if I was deranged. Point taken. Perhaps I did go a teensy bit overboard.
“As a single parent, have I developed an insatiable need to worry about her (and my other kids) in general?”
A week or so later, however, another student got mugged on the street in front of their building late at night while walking home alone, vindicating me somewhat. The woman was not hurt, but it did lend credibility to my warnings and, naturally, brought some of my fears back to the surface, which I have since buried again in the name of not being a helicopter parent to an adult child. But I do wonder: Am I worrying more lately because I’m actually concerned about her in her current living situation? Or, as a single parent, have I developed an insatiable need to worry about her (and my other kids) in general? The answer is more likely the latter, if not for any reason other than I’m entering the empty nest years and already feeling less relevant in my children’s lives. The thought of it is, at times, daunting. Times of transition usually are.
Although Empty Nest Syndrome affects married and single people alike, for those who have been parenting alone, the experience, according to Gabrielle Applebury, M.A. M.F.T., can give rise to increased feelings of grief, depression, loneliness, and anxiety inasmuch as single parents and their children may rely more heavily on each other for caregiving, emotional support, and advice. In situations where single parents lack a spouse or partner or friends and family who can empathize with what they are experiencing and help them through it, symptoms associated with Empty Nest Syndrome, in addition to being exacerbated, may also be overlooked because there is no one close by to witness them.
The best way to cope, I’m finding, is to redirect my thoughts from what I’m losing to what I’m gaining, which includes additional time for me, my work, friends, having someone special in my life, and the ever-evolving relationship I share with my children. Speaking of which, I soon discovered after my daughter left that I’m not irrelevant at all. Even though she’s not with me physically, my daughter is with me over the phone, asking for my advice about school, her part-time job, friendships, and dating.
As a mom, it’s bittersweet to watch my daughter come into her own; I don’t want to lose her, but I do want to see her succeed. I recognize how I may sometimes act a little nutty about my first baby entering the real world, but that’s because it’s always been my “job” to protect her from it. For each of our sakes, though, I know I need to stop worrying so much, while never forgetting that no matter how old my daughter is or how old I am, we’re both still growing up.
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