How To Fill an Empty Nest

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S1: So I guess what you’re saying is me turning to my then 14 year old daughter and saying to her, OK, you need to get pregnant at 16 and stay home forever. That would be like that was bad advice. I was joking, but what are we going to do with our time and energy? You know, how many dogs can you have?

S2: Welcome to how to. I’m Amanda Ripley, so it’s been about a month since the school year began, and it’s been an especially exciting time for college freshmen. They’re making new friends, going to football games, starting to figure out who they are and who they’re going to be in life. But for the parents left behind, it also means it’s been about a month since their homes suddenly got a lot quieter. There’s one less played at the dinner table, one less player at family game night, one less person to wait up for.

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S3: I anticipated that it would suck, and it sucked.

S2: This is Kelly Corrigan. She’s a bestselling author and host of the podcast Kelly Corrigan Wonders, and she recently wrote the New York Times piece How to Let Go of Your Irreplaceable Unstoppable Daughter about dropping off her youngest child, Clare, at college.

S3: The clear drop was brutal, but I when we left. Yeah, sorry your ears for a second, I’m sorry. It was when we left and we closed the door. I cried so hard and Edward said, I’ve never heard you say I like not even when your dad died or dear.

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S2: That’s the voice of Susan, our listener this week who, like Kelly, is grappling with the inevitable reality of losing two daughters to college

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S3: like I don’t want around myself. I want her moving on into her adult life. I got it. I’m just telling you, Yeah, that I. I cry when I go to sleep at night. I am not. I like her a lot. I like her company. Like, I like being around them. Yeah, and I don’t like that. That’s reduced to like a couple of weeks a year. Yeah, that’s all. That’s all I’m saying.

S2: So you felt both at once you could. That’s the paradox. That’s the human. The whole catastrophe, right?

S3: That’s the whole catastrophe right there. And I and I hope that she has a big, exciting life and that doesn’t involve that much of me and I am tuned into that. And so, yeah, like it was the end of something and it was the end of something really consequential for me personally. Right. Because you’ve never done anything. As complex and engaging and moving. As being someone’s parent, that’s why all therapy starts with tell me about your mother.

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S1: Yeah.

S2: So on today’s show, is there a way to let your kid go on to bigger and better things without it breaking your heart? Susan never really got over saying goodbye to her eldest daughter, which happened four years ago, and now her youngest is applying to colleges and she’s already dreading drop off next fall. But Kelly has been there, and she has some hard earned wisdom for Susan and for all of us about how to handle major life transitions gracefully, or at least not destructively. Don’t go anywhere. Our listener, Susan, is a writer and a spoken word artist.

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S1: And then one day in a flash of lightning, you released me closing the door on your dorm room, waving goodbye from the window. And I found myself lost.

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S2: That was a snippet of a poem, Susan wrote after her eldest daughter, Sophie moved out.

S1: I was just so pathetically floored by her leaving. I mean, at the same time, I was so happy for her.

S2: It was about four years ago when Sophie left her school two hours away from where the family lives in British Columbia.

S1: Oh, I’ll never forget it. Excitement the month before and that and we’re getting her sheets and everything and and, you know, kind of thinking, Oh, it’s going to be sad, but you know, she’s left on trips before, and we were all kind of thinking we were ready. And I remember her going to her dorm room and we’re sitting there and. I just got this feel like we’ve got to get out of here. We just got to get out of here. I got to leave now and and so I got very irritated and then I got in the car and I got so nauseous and it’s just such a physical reaction. And then when we got home, we went to the pool to try and cheer ourselves up or whatever, and I just sat on the on the deck and my laptop googling how to do with your child going to university frantically because I was completely unprepared.

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S2: It sounds like it, really. It was like a gut punch. Mm-Hmm. How long did that last?

S1: A year and a half of of just that, that sense of loss.

S2: In this case, Sophia was pretty good at keeping in touch, which made the separation slightly more bearable.

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S1: She’d call every week or every couple of times a week at first, and so I joke with my second one. You know, I said, Yeah, when you leave home, I’ll be lucky if I get a wedding invitation from you, like, she’s just she’s a different kid and she’s like, Yeah, that’s pretty much it. So, you know, we both know that like, they’re so different, which is lovely and I celebrate it. But at the same time, I say, Yeah, you’re not going to be calling us every week, are you? Nope.

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S2: Now that her younger daughter, Ellie, is a senior in high school and scoping out colleges, Susan’s bracing herself for impact and wondering if there’s a better way.

S1: How do we avoid being so sad and so pathetic? And obviously I’m prepared to be sad, but how to not be taken out at the knees so much by her leaving?

S3: I mean, I don’t think you’re a loser, and I don’t think it’s pathetic. I think that you loving and enjoying your time under one roof with your family is awesome. And I think that it’s the dream. And I think if you have to pay for that on the back end with a thousand tears, so be it. I mean, I feel sort of defensive on your behalf because I relate and relating to your story so strongly, and I don’t want to think of myself as a loser or pathetic or a burden. These words that you used, I I think that, you know, for many people, those years of being a family are some of the most consequential of our lives. Like, there’s the most emotion good, bad and in-between. I mean, I’ve never been as mad as anyone on planet Earth, as I have been in my children. And I’ve never loved anybody like that either. And I’ve never been more delighted by a person’s success and more wounded by any failure or rejection. Like, it’s it’s an intense, one of a kind relationship. And so I say, just let it rip. I just cry your eyes out. You know, I actually I don’t think that I sometimes I think of it like units of emotion, like there’s just some number of units of emotion that you’re going to have to work through in this transition. And so if you work through a thousand units a day or you work through five units a day like the units will be dealt with. And so you can meet her the emotion or you can let it rip, and I don’t know, I sort of wonder if maybe by letting it rip that you come back up through the haze like a little more present and a little fuller? You know what I mean? Rather than like all this energy it takes to block things like why not just use the energy to feel the feelings instead of use the energy to block the feelings?

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S1: Yeah, that’s true. I mean, it’s just like and I feel like it takes away from the celebration of them stepping out in the world. And I want to be celebrating that with them, not be there, but just just go where to go. You guys, you’ve worked so hard for this, you know?

S3: Yeah, yeah. I was very aware of that with Claire. I found for me, for whatever it’s worth. That I would. I would well up, but I would try to make. I would try to make my message like positive, even through tears, it’s just like, I just think you’re really great and I’m really going to miss your company. And I just can’t wait and then quickly turn to like I just can’t wait for other people to experience you like your shoes. And just trying to call out the things about it that are so special so that I could make it more. Even though I was full of emotion, I could still pin it back to her and her big break, for sure. Yeah. Hmm. I’m a big fan of and Nora. Like, there’s two things happening here and and they’re not taking away from one another. I am excited that you were going to college and I am sad that you won’t live in this house. Yeah, yeah.

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S2: It’s funny, it reminds me of my son is only 14, but I already dread him leaving like he went to sleepaway camp for two weeks and I was like just wandering around the house, disoriented and confused for the first three days. It was ridiculous. But I guess it reminds me a little bit of how I always feel this little reluctance before I apologize to my kid when I screw up. And then I do it anyway, right? But there’s this feeling like maybe I’m giving him too much information like he does this. You really need to see how the sausage is made. Right, right, right. You know what it’s like. What is the alternative, right? Maybe that’s the same question we should ask here. What will happen instead if we don’t allow some of that to come out? Yeah.

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S3: Well, the important point that you’re making Amanda is that an alternative is not perfection, right?

S2: Right. That’s not happening. And you did like you said, you let it rip. You let yourself cry after you close the dorm room door, but you didn’t do it in front of clear.

S3: Oh, I did. Oh, you did?

S2: Oh no, I. Oh man, I was already without you.

S3: That is so sweet of you. Oh, about. Yeah. Yeah, about.

S2: So here’s our first few takeaways. Remember that your emotions are not mutually exclusive, right? You can feel happy and sad at the same time or one right after the other. That’s totally possible. Allow yourself to feel those feelings as they come. Good, bad and ugly because if you don’t, they’ll just come back to haunt you later. So sometimes it’s OK to just let it rip churn through those units of emotion. And even though the kids are out of the house, it doesn’t mean you’re done being a parent.

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S3: I think there are rich and important days ahead. And mostly because that’s my experience with my own mom. Yeah. So, you know, it’s it’s it’s interesting and maybe informative to think about parenting over the ages, you know, like people used to have kids basically to like work the farm and and then their kids like to be seen and not heard and, you know, to sit up straight and be presented to society. And then when I was a kid, my mom just opened the door in the morning and then screamed out at 6:00 p.m. for us to get home for frozen pizza on TV trays. You know, in front of Wheel of Fortune. And then we got into this different zone. You know where where you either are a helicopter parent or you’re living your every decision is vis-a-vis am I a helicopter pilot? Like, everybody’s aware of that. And I know things about my kids, and my mom did not know about me, for sure. But I do think because of the way my own relationship with my mom’s evolved. She’s become more important to me and interesting to me and valuable to me. Probably every year of my life. Like, I don’t think I thought about her at all when I was in college, and I think that’s part of the sting and dropping your kid off is that if they’re even remotely happy on campus, yeah, you are like the 99 thought in their head. Yes. And then as happens for, you know, every woman everywhere, I had a baby and I started thinking, Oh my God, did you do this for me? Were you up all night with me? Did you get mastitis for me? Like, where your nipples bleeding for me? Like, how did I pick on you? Like, every day it was like every single thing that happened. I just couldn’t help thinking, Oh my God, you ungrateful wretch how you have going to have to call her again. And then she would say, You know, I call and she picked on me how and I said, I just kind of say, I’m sorry. She’s like, What are you sorry for today? And like, I’m sorry that I didn’t get the diaper thing, diaper thing Israel, you know? And then I do think that there’s really rich points of connection still to come where there’s a little less obligation on their side and a little more sincere curiosity in what you what you think about something. Mm hmm.

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S2: Kelly and I was so struck. Kelly recently had Susan Orlean on her podcast, and she had said Susan said that after her son left home, she just felt like her life had no purpose. And it was so striking because just like, you know, she’s like a, you know, staff writer for The New Yorker and multiple bestselling author. And it was like, so it sort of doesn’t matter. I guess what else you know, you can be like climbing Mount Everest and your kid leaves home and you’re like, Oh, I guess I have nowhere to go today.

S3: I think I totally related to Susan Orlean, who said I my life has no purpose. And thinking, like, Wow, that’s sort of a funny thing to say for a person who’s fairly busy and, you know, occupied with what seems like fairly meaningful work and it doesn’t matter. It’s not. It isn’t. It does not rate with making people and growing citizens and fostering the kind of family connection that can keep people safe and supported for decades like that is two different kind levels of work. And so in a way, it doesn’t surprise me at all that any of us think, Oof, what am I supposed to do now? Yeah.

S2: So here’s our next hard truth. It’s OK to admit that raising a kid is just profoundly different than hobbies or work, or really most things feeling a sense of loss when that kid grows up doesn’t make you a loser. It makes you human and as hard as it might be. Your next parenting job is to give that kid some space.

S3: You know, the goal is to let him be where they are. And that means like none of the vanity texting, which is really more for you than for them. You know, the little hearts and the stuff that gives you a little burst of dopamine on your end is taking them away from where they are on their end. And that is like I felt that was like torture because I can’t get used to going from 24-7 face time.

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S1: I know thing, right? And the first night that Sophie, the first night she was there, I just texted her, you know, bottle door and just goodnight and didn’t hear back from her and then didn’t hear back from her and didn’t hear back from her. I thought, OK, and I have never, and I swear I’ve never done. I don’t even know what the app is, where you can see where your kid is. For the first time ever, I thought, Oh, I’m going to look and see. And she was like, not in her dorm. The location was not where her dorm was, and I’m like, OK, don’t Dexter. Don’t don’t. And I did, huh? You know, and I thought was good for you.

S3: It’s funny. I texted Claire the first night and just said, Can I boo and nothing? And I was like, OK, here we go. And then she’s at UVA. And they had sent out this nice digital newsletter every day, and they had pictures from the first year who went to the football stadium to learn the UVA fight song from the marching band. And I found myself like zooming in on these photos that you know her classes

S2: like as if I may be able to here just

S3: like it did. Was she having fun? Did she wear like a T-shirt? You know, like who was she standing next to? Like any, I mean, I just for information. But I do. I do think that the acclimation for me has been faster than I think. Well, that’s what I was going to ask. Like, I’m like, All right, this is it. This is the new reality. Like, I’ll talk to you in three or four days, you know, like we were trying to go a whole week and that that didn’t work. But you know, we went four days and I was like, God, hmm, you know, I’ll never know what she had to practice like. I just used to know, you know, used to know everything. You knew who she was out with. You knew what time she got home. You knew what she was wearing. She you could tell whether she had a good time or not. Nature, nothing

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S1: message.

S3: And that’s as it should be.

S2: When we come back, we’ve saved the best news for last. Turns out, the future might not be as bleak as you think. Don’t leave us quite yet. If you enjoy how to the best way to support the show is by joining Slate Plus Slate’s membership program, your contribution helps us produce the unique stories that you hear in our feed every week. It’s only a dollar for your first month, and in addition to supporting our journalism members, never hear an ad on a Slate podcast and never hit a paywall on the Slate website. Slate Plus members are essential to keeping this show going, so I hope you’ll join. If you’re able to sign up now, go to Slate.com slash How-To Plus again, that Slate.com slash how to plus. We’re back with our listener, Susan, and author and interviewer extraordinaire Kelly Corrigan. One of the more common assumptions about empty nesters is that life suddenly gets really boring without your kids around. But for Kelly, it took an unexpected vacation to realize that that’s not necessarily the case.

S3: Both my girls were in camps, and I was away from my husband for a Fourth of July, and I have this high school friend who has this awesome place and like when a pisarski and he invited me up and I was the only single person there it was for families and me and I had the time of my life. I mean, these are just the greatest people I know, and their kids are hilarious and the water was heavenly and we did the camp while Olympics. And you know, it’s just one good time after the next. And so the next summer, of course, I was like, We’re all coming. You know, I’m bringing the family from California, which is no small feat to get from Oakland, California to New Hampshire. But we did it and we got there. And when we were leaving, I thought God wasn’t as much fun this year. And I and I think it’s because I was so hyper aware of Georgia, Clare and Edward and whether they were having a good time. You know, just I just wasn’t present the way you are when you’re floating around in the world by yourself.

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S2: Yeah, I will say in my own tiny, totally irrelevant example, after my first four days of wandering aimlessly around my house when my son was at sleepaway camp, I was like, Oh my God, my life is so easy now. I was like, I just to worry about myself, like my husband. I go out to dinner whenever we’re done working. I don’t feel like I have to make a real meal. I was like, This is crazy easy.

S1: All have energy that comes from that. There’s a night.

S2: Yeah, yeah. And where do you think that energy might go? Susan?

S1: Oh, I don’t know. Well, I didn’t do any spoken word until after I turned 50, so that was a a new and exciting thing. And, you know, I’ll probably maybe do some more spoken word stuff. I just got a big writing contract. So that will keep me very busy this year. Yeah, I do look forward to that sense of ease. And yeah, maybe we just don’t. Let’s just have cereal for dinner. And, you know, let’s sleep in for the first time. I don’t have to get up and drive anyone to band practice at seven in the morning, you know, so looking forward to more of that.

S2: So, yeah, and it’s interesting that your writing is maybe picking up at the same time that this transition is happening. And I’m guessing that writing is one way that you process some of these things.

S1: Indeed, yes.

S3: You know, I talked to this friend of mine rdl, she’s a therapist for teenagers, and she brought up this very cool idea about compassionate detachment. Hmm. Which is sort of borrowing from Buddhism to say that, you know, there is this idea that we could be. Detached in a lovely way, like detached with hope, like I’m still cheering and I’m still available, but I don’t have demands on you. You are not required. And our paths have split, and maybe. The best is yet to come, I mean, or maybe something as good. Mm hmm.

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S2: They’re holding out the possibility that you just don’t know, like you said earlier, you just don’t know what comes next.

S3: At least we should believe it’s possible that it could be awesome. Yeah.

S2: So it seems like one thing we can say is we need to reframe empty nesting is not pathetic. Right. Can we agree? Can we get a consensus?

S3: Yes, absolutely.

S2: Yes. Do you think there’s a better phrase than empty nesting? Mm hmm.

S1: Yeah, that’s a good that’s a

S3: good point, yeah. Empty is too negative a

S1: word, yeah, because it’s hardly

S3: not empty. You’re still in it.

S1: Yeah, my husband’s still in it are three three legged dog, so

S2: it’s just that cluttered.

S3: Yeah, yeah. Oh, that’s funny.

S2: Here’s our next takeaway. This is a huge opportunity to get back to doing those things you used to love to do, but you put on hold when you had kids like, I don’t know, playing soccer or going to see live music or learning Spanish. It’s time to revisit them, and you don’t have to wait until your kids have moved out.

S3: Here’s an interesting thing. I interviewed Atul Gawande, who wrote Being Mortal, which is like mandatory reading for all people. And he reports on all this research that says that when you hit 60, that happiness across the board increases

S1: a lot of I’m turning 60 next year. Have my kids older.

S3: So I think that to to say that we know what’s coming and that it’s that we can see it all from here is is conceded like I think we should reduce our conviction and embrace some humility and say life is a mystery to be lived. And for all I know, these are going to be the best 30 years of my life.

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S2: Yeah, that’s beautiful. Yeah, I love that research. It’s like I, my husband and I bring it up like once a week.

S3: It’s like a blanket that you wrap around your shoulders. But the research

S2: says, get to 60. God damn it.

S1: No, you feel

S3: happier than ever. The other thing I was going to say is that this super awesome person that I was so lucky to know named Bert Lubin, who ran our children’s hospital in Oakland where I volunteered, was dying of brain cancer, and his doctor recommended to him that he eat an all plant diet that he walk outside every day, and that the third thing on the prescription notepad was novelty. Underline, underline. And I saw the note on his, you know, his fridge, and I said novelty, and he said novelty. She said, if you if you walk, if you take walk at your house and go to the left every time you go for a walk, go to the right. If you see a shirt in your closet you haven’t worn in 10 years, put it on. And so my husband, I say to each other all the time, we’re like novelty. Let’s go to a different restaurant.

S2: Yeah, I love this advice. One of the challenges of the pandemic or any long term routine is the lack of change. And there’s a lot of research showing that if our brains don’t get enough novelty, we do start to languish. So we really do need distraction even and maybe especially when we’re anticipating a big loss. Do you think there is a right way to prepare for this? You have this quote. There’s a lot of heartbreak in parenting because basically, if you’re doing it right, you are forever saying goodbye.

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S1: Yeah, yeah, yeah,

S3: yeah, that’s about the size of it.

S2: So then it’s like measuring balancing that being present while they’re still there and. You know, not lying to yourself about what’s coming in the sadness, I mean, if you look back at the last year and there was a lot going on and not going on, but do you feel like you you have any advice for anticipating the dread that that year?

S3: I mean, one thing I would say is, you know you, I wish that I had. I mean, if Claire here, she would laugh so hard. And so at Georgia, I wish that I had practiced like there houseplant parenting more, which is to say, be available, be present, be within their line of sight, but quiet and and know that there is just this reassurance. And looking over and seeing, Oh, there’s that plant still there. Yeah, it’s always there who

S1: that’s going to be. Yeah, that that’s going to be challenging. But yeah, be the house plant.

S2: What kind of house plant would you be?

S3: I would be a big, huge one with very colourful flowers that needed a lot of sunlight and watering and soil changing.

S1: How about you, sir? Oh, I think I would be something that doesn’t need much watering, but that would kind of corral like a creeping vine that would kind of crawl into all kinds of grass or, you

S3: know, take over, leak over and strangle your baby. Yeah, that’s so good. Yeah, it’s so good.

S2: Thank you to Susan for sharing her anxieties with us and to Kelly Corrigan for all her useful advice. Make sure to check out her podcast, Kelly Corrigan Wonders and the new season of her PBS show Tell Me More, which starts October 5th. So what’s your problem? Anything you want us to work on? Send us a note at how to. At Slate.com or leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one and we’ll try to help. And if you like what you heard today, please give us a rating and a review and definitely tell a friend that helps us help more people. How TOS Executive Producer Is Derek John Rosemary Belson produces the show. Our theme music is by Hannah’s Brown. Remixed by Merritt Jacob, our technical director, Charles Duhigg created the show on Amanda Ripley. Thanks for listening!