Empty Nest Schmest by Barbara Adler

I’ve been hearing about this so called “Empty Nest Syndrome” for years.  Long before it would ever apply to me.  I occasionally glanced down the road towards those “older” moms wondering how it feels to do whatever I want, whenever I want, basking in the “emptiness” that lay ahead.  I never even imagined it until one day it happened to me.  Or did it?

My three sons are currently age 18, 20, & 22.  All three attending 4 year colleges away from home.  After the first one left, nothing in the house changed, except I just lost my second “driver” to pick up a brother when I had a conflict (don’t judge- when you get past being scared that they are driving it’s AWESOME!).  When you have three kids and the second one goes away to college, a whole new level of interesting begins. You are—perhaps for the very first time—parenting the third child, as an only child.  As I watched him gleefully bounce between his brother’s bedrooms claiming all the stuff they left behind, I knew this would be a very special time for both of us. He’ll be getting me all to himself!  I was wrong about that, but that’s for another piece (which I would title “How to Unsuccessfully Make a Third Child an Only Child”)  Anyway, this past fall, that last son left for college. The oldest has graduated and has moved into the city to work.  The middle one is still in school, and now, the baby is a Freshman.  I’m here.  I’m finally an empty nester!  NOT.

The first thing I would like to say, is that a kid going to college does not make you an empty nester in my experience.  My nest is far from empty.  College kids are home every other minute, or so it seems.  There are the two-minutes-after-they-leave Jewish holidays, Fall break, Thanksgiving break, the emergency weekend home super sick to see the family doctor, and a million week long Christmas break-this all before the year is half over.  Then, there is the random weekend to come home for a haircut and a dentist appointment, Passover/Easter, and a week long Spring Break which for some odd reason, felt much, much longer. After this, plans for coming back home start to take shape, because as of May 10th, they are all back home…for three and a half months. Don’t misunderstand, I LOVE my boys, and get particularly joyful when they come home! But if you add up all this “empty nesting”, you’d calculate that it’s nothing more than occasional respite in between very new and challenging returns to the nest.

The first challenge is the all new “leaves the house without saying goodbye” syndrome.  This goes like this:  You are in your room on your computer trying to look up an insurance claim, and you hear the door slam.  Before you get up to understand what you just heard, you hear a car door and an engine fading distantly down the street.  Wait-WHAT? “Did he just leave the house without saying goodbye”??  I type furiously into the phone-knowing they don’t text and drive so he might not respond right away, “DID YOU JUST LEAVE??”  What is that? They go away to college and leave the house with people home and DON’T say goodbye?? Some time later the “yeah, I went to get food with Jake” text comes in.  I’m thinking, so when you leave your dorm room and your roommate is sitting on his bed studying, is it not fashionable to say goodbye??

The second interesting feature is the no curfew thing. Um, yes, there is a curfew, or at least an expectation that you don’t stay out till all hours leaving your parents wondering if that cute car (um, we let you drive) is wrapped around a tree. This one I ge.t..there is no one at school tapping on their watch when college kids go out.  But still. Time for a family meeting, in a group chat on the cell phone of course.

The other super interesting syndrome is the food thing.  Yes, there is a food thing.  So in my excitement that the “boys are coming home!!!”, I run to the supermarket and stock up on all their favorites. Suddenly the fridge is full, the pantry is bursting with all their favorite snacks, and I’m so proud to be the mom to have every flavor of Doritos available for when their friends stop by.  No one explained to me, that they come home, to eat out.  “Mom, me and Mark are going to Chipotle for lunch”, “Mom, I’m grabbing dinner with Sam”.  I’m like “wait, but I have your favorite raspberries in the fridge!”  As the raspberries turn from pretty pink-red to maroon, to mold, I start to wonder.  They are home, but could it be that it’s not the same for THEM as it is for me? What happened to my boy who would stand in the fridge eating an entire pint of raspberries? The kids are here in the nest; it’s not empty. Oh wait there he is now! I’m finally going to get to hear how the Microeconomics class is going! Walking towards me with that sheepish smile and a slightly outstretched hand saying “Mom, do you have any cash? I’m getting dinner with Steven”,  I exhale.

So now summer is almost upon us.  Both my college kids are heading back home, this time with a carload of all their belongings to live here for three plus months, like old times.  Here comes the worrying what time they’ll be back with the car. Here comes the door opening and closing and opening and closing and opening and closing. Here comes the “What am I a cash machine??” feeling. Do I smell weed? Does your friend drive too fast? Do I allow the girlfriend to sleepover? Your skin looks weird have you washed your face?

I keep reading articles online referring to being an “empty nester”.  When people hear I have one living in the city, and two in college their first line is “WOW, an empty nester!”  Honestly, my nest does not feel empty at all.  In fact, it still feels very full with the worries, the responsibilities, the dirty laundry, the endless pairs of huge shoes strewn in the doorway and a whole host of new parenting challenges.  After doing this “college kid” thing for four plus years now and three more to go, I can say that my nest is not empty.  I do have more free time, and I spend a lot of it wondering how I am going to try to make a little money, find a new hobby, attend a few events I would not have otherwise.  I am still glancing down the road peeking at what life will be like when they really are all flown, living on their own, and off our payroll.  Will I turn one of their bedrooms into a “she shed”? a dance studio? Will I be begging them to come visit? sleep over? like old times?  I see now that during these brief periods of respite in between college vacations, I need to make some of my own adjustments, letting go, changing my parenting style; expectations and definitely buy less food.  Although, I will probably always buy raspberries when I know they’re coming home.  I may not be the landlord forever, but I’ll always be their mom!


Barbara Adler is a 56 year old Long Island mom who learned to Breakdance (yes, you read that right) as a proud member of MOMZ-N-DA HOODTM 




  1. 4 Responses to “Empty Nest Schmest by Barbara Adler”

  2. Memories!!

    By Gen on Apr 13, 2018

  3. Barb! You are such an eloquent writer. You capture this chapter so well. Having both college boys home this summer will be an adjustment. They are handsome and bright and full of potential. You and Michael should be very proud!

    I will be adjusting to james not coming home this summer. He is staying in Milwaukee to work and, of course, have fun.

    Letting go of expectations and learning how to parent in a different way are my take away messages from this wonderful essay.

    Hugs and love!

    By Mary on Apr 14, 2018

  4. My son is 15, so you are ahead of me…..but this is a huge inspiration…and reaffirms to me all the more importance of having an identity that is fulfilling beyond motherhood, as the years go fast.

    By Robin Gorman Newman on Apr 15, 2018

  5. Good article, Barbara. Enjoy the emptyISHNess of the moment!

    By Bette ann Moskowitz on Apr 17, 2018