When I was in college, one of my professors said, “The point of parenting is to work yourself out of a job.”

As a 20-year-old with no kids, I thought that was genius. When my kids were toddlers and I was in my 30s, I would repeat, “The point of parenting is to work yourself out of a job” while teaching them how to potty and dress themselves and eat healthy snacks. During the elementary and middle school years, that sentence became a lifeline, as they struggled against boundaries and responsibilities and developed skills they will use their whole lives. 

Now I’m careening toward 50, and as one kid has moved out and only one kid is left at home, I think, “The point of parenting is to work yourself out of a job” and want to punch someone in the throat. Probably the professor, because what she neglected to include in this nugget of wisdom is that working yourself out of the parenting job is painful, like no other pain in the life of a mother.

In the middle of my Empty Nesting grief process, I thought of a few of the things that I wish someone had told me about the realities of the Empty Nest.

Empty Nesting Starts Early

Popular culture tells us that kids go through school, graduate, move on and out, and leave us with a sense of relief and celebration, along with some bittersweet nostalgia. Easy peasy, yes?

Nope. That is *not* how this works. 

In my estimation, the Empty Nest process begins in late junior high. Kids at this age are looking ahead to high school and may have friend networks. They might be looking ahead to getting their driver’s license and then a part-time job in the community. Their hormones are going bonkers, and they have noticed who they are attracted to and have begun forming more romantic relationships. 

And they typically think that their parents are dumb and don’t know anything. All of this is developmentally appropriate. And what’s our role as a parent? “The point of parenting is to work yourself out of a job.” 

Raising healthy, functional, responsible human beings necessitates letting go long before they graduate high school.

The Process Takes F-O-R-E-V-E-R

Honestly, I thought that empty nesting started with my kids entering their senior year of high school. I assumed that my Empty Nest feelings would begin on the first day of senior year, continue with the transitional events during those nine months, and transition with prom and graduation. Maybe I would be dealing with more feelings as the summer waxed and waned, and then we would all move forward, right?

Nope. Again, this is *not* how that works.

My oldest started high school in 2016. My youngest will be a 2023 high school graduate. The year 2016 is when my oldest started to pull away, practice self-reliance, and push against me for independence, as teenagers are developmentally programmed to do. 

That’s S-E-V-E-N years. This is how long I’ve been going through the Empty Nest phase of life. Almost a decade of dealing with complicated grief and conflicting feelings. And the more kids you have, the longer the process.

Empty Nesting = Conflicting Feelings

Before I had kids, I asked a friend of mine how she felt about deciding to have children. 

“This is the hardest job I’ve ever done,” she said, “and it’s the best job I’ve ever done.”

Nothing is simple about raising kids. They grow and change with zero notice. There will be issues throughout their lives – just like our lives – with school and relationships and extracurriculars and personal development, and that’s off the top of my head.

At any point in the parenting journey, we can feel a wide range of feelings at any one time. Tornadoes of loneliness, joy, relief, happiness, independence, pride, loss, regret… no feeling is off limits. 

What can complicate matters is that more than one thing can be true at a time. More than one feeling can occur at a time, and they often do. I feel immense pride about the people my children are turning out to be and how independent they are, and I miss how they needed me to cuddle and read with them. That push-pull of feelings is tough.

Previous Trauma and Grief Activation 

Raising kids is a process of grief. There are over 40 different losses that we can experience, each one with accompanying grief. Parenting kids who grow up (“The point of parenting is to work yourself out of a job”) is one of those grief experiences.

Grief is really good at kicking up past trauma and unresolved grief. I am a survivor of complex trauma, and due to my experiences, I have a wicked abandonment trigger. This feels like – when people leave or things change – that I’m going to die. This sounds dramatic, but trust me, it feels worse. And it feels real. 

As a trauma and grief recovery coach, I routinely work through the triggers and feelings that show up in the course of life. With Empty Nesting, it has felt like my children are going to leave F-O-R-E-V-E-R. Every time I would think about them moving out or heading to college, run-of-the-mill feelings would be replaced with this sense that I will never see them again – this is the abandonment trigger trying to take over.

Once I realized that the Empty Nest process was activating old trauma and grief, I could get help dealing with it. 

This doesn’t mean that I glibly go around popping open champagne and shouting, “The point of parenting is to work yourself out of a job!” But I can put this parenting journey into perspective, and enjoy seeing the outcome of all of the hard work I have invested in these humans over the years. 

It’s tough to argue with a legacy like that.

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