The Painful Paradox of Successful Parenting

I’ve had conversations – both virtual and face-to-face – with thousands of parents (mostly moms) since I began writing about empty nesting and midlife in 2011. Those parents range from exhausted first-time mothers to joyous and celebrating empty nesters. Each mother has her own parenting story to tell, her unique experience to share, her child or children to love with all her heart. The common thread through many of these conversations is the deeply felt connection these parents have with their children. The invisible umbilical cords that are always there are what bring most mothers both joy and sadness in varying degrees. Whether we have carried them for nine months, or adopted them, or became their mothers and fathers through marriage or fostering, we raise them – painfully, continually, wholeheartedly, passionately – so that someday, they can up and leave us. This is the painful paradox of successful parenthood.

As the founder of a Facebook community focused on empty nesting, I see posts and comments from thousands of parents from all over the world dealing with the good and the awful of the empty nest. At any hour of the day and night, there are heartfelt words about their concerns, their successes, failures, and blessings. Many are moms who cannot understand how their children, now young adults (some who are parents ) have put so much distance between them. Mothers who have not prepared themselves for empty nesting – and most have not, no matter how hard they try – are shocked by the sudden lack of communication with their (not so) suddenly grown-up kids. Where once there was a never-ending conversation in the home, starting before breakfast and ending at bedtime, there are hours – days – sometimes even weeks – without any word from those kids they love so much.

There is nothing anyone can do to turn back the clock to those cozier times when our kids were little and cute and needed us to cut their sandwiches and walk them to school. We cannot rewind to when snuggling was the payoff for long days of potty training, homework, meltdowns at the grocery store, and backtalk. We will never get back those teen years when sullen, door-slamming, emotionally unpredictable adolescents lived in our homes and alternated between delighting and terrifying us. As empty-nesters, we are free of the constant drudgery, but also the consistent time together. This is an accomplishment, not a punishment.

Yes, sometimes it feels terribly sad that all those years flew by so fast that it makes you stop in your tracks, you are so overwhelmed with nostalgia. It’s thoughtless and unkind of our kids to not call or text or email often enough. They leave to live their lives very separate from us, we who raised them and still love them so much. But this ability for our grown kids to live on their own is the result of good parenting, which is what can make it even more challenging to accept. No matter how proud we are of our independent (or sort of independent) young adults, for many moms and dads, that pride is tinged with loneliness, resentment, and frustration. While we were working tirelessly and carefully to raise our children to be quality human beings, many parents forgot to plan for their lives after their kids leave home. While there is no way to plan for the emotional shock of an empty nest, preparing for the opportunities empty-nesting bring to us can help ease the transition.

The Painful Truth

When your last child leaves home, it can be almost as painful as giving birth – and it brings as much change to your life as welcoming your first child into your life did. The pain a successful parent goes through is, on the flip side, an opportunity for empty nesters to find their new independence and flourish as their young adults are doing.

As the founder of a Facebook community focused on empty nesting, I see posts and comments from thousands of parents from all over the world dealing with the good and the awful of the empty nest. At any hour of the day and night, there are heartfelt words about their concerns, their successes, their failures, and their blessings. There are also many, many moms who cannot understand how their children, now young adults (some of whom are now parents ) have put so much distance between themselves and their parents. Mothers who have not prepared themselves for empty nesting – and most have not, no matter how hard they try – can be shocked by the sudden lack of communication they have with their (not so) suddenly grown-up kids now living on their own. Where once there was a never-ending conversation in the home that started before breakfast and ended right before bed, now there are hours – days – sometimes even weeks – without any word from those kids they love so much.

There is nothing anyone can do to turn back the clock to those simpler, cozier times when our kids were little and cute and needed us to cut their sandwiches and walk them to school. We cannot rewind to when snuggling was the payoff for long days of potty training, homework, meltdowns at the grocery store and backtalk. We will never get back those teen years when sullen, door-slamming, emotionally unpredictable adolescents lived in our homes and alternated between delighting and terrifying us. As empty-nesters, we are free of the constant drudgery, but also the consistent time together. This is an accomplishment, not a punishment.

Yes, sometimes it feels terribly sad that all those years flew by so fast that it makes you stop in your tracks, you are so overwhelmed with nostalgia. And it’s thoughtless and unkind of our kids who don’t call or text or email often enough, who leave to live their lives very separate from us, we who raised them and still love them so much. But this ability for our grown kids to live on their own is the result of good parenting, which is what can make it even more challenging to accept. No matter how proud we are of our independent (or sort of independent) young adults, for many moms and dads, that pride is tinged with loneliness, resentment, and frustration. While we have worked tirelessly and carefully to raise our children to be strong, quality human beings, many parents forget to consider their lives once their children are gone. While there is no way to plan for the emotional shock of an empty nest, preparing for the opportunities empty-nesting bring to us can help ease the transition.

When your last child leaves home, it can be almost as painful as giving birth – and it brings as much change as welcoming your first child into your life did. The pain a successful parent goes through is, on the flip side, an opportunity for empty nesters to find their new independence and flourish as their young adults are doing.

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7 Comments

  • For my husband and I, it’s been a positive experience. As much as we adore our (now grown) children, the empty nest has given us the chance to reconnect, enjoy each other and travel. At first, I was wondering ‘what will I do’ when they move out? Now, I can’t imagine them moving back in.

  • I do my little children, the noise and chaos. Now my house echoes and I am reduce to visiting dates, phone calls, txt messages. It’s not that I want them back in my house as adults (no!!!) But having them closer than a plane ride would be nice. In.other words, I want it all. 😁

  • kristen ballou

    I think it is just a hard phase of life that doesn’t get a lot of attention when you are a mom of anyone younger than 18 years old. I told my mom that had I to do it over again (new momming) I would like to have known (actually and mentally) that at 18 years old (or when your child leaves for college or marries or something about this timeframe) , life is gonna change for you. Big change. I somehow didn’t think that at my sons’ graduations from college that it was going to be “all over” in some sense. That things would be very different. I may have seen that senior year with a new perspective and prepped myself. As is was, I was shellshocked (as and as you say, most moms don’t prepare). I needed to be ready to be sad or overwhelmed or relieved or something. But it was just so different and things stopped being the way I knew them to be, hoped them to be or even imagined them to be, they were just something else. And being a mom just doesn’t stop, ever. Just our roles and duties do but somehow I didn’t get the “manual” about what those changes were….. (mom of new adult boys).

  • Judy Williamson

    I am very grateful that my children and grandchildren are close by. It’s just “nice to know”. Especially when I
    realize we are all experiencing the same earthquake!!!!

  • Julie Simon

    Some of us are lucky enough to have grandchildren to fill that empty void with love and joy — perhaps not full-time, but enough to appreciate the quiet when they’re gone!

  • Toni

    Then there are those of us with children who have possibly/barely manageable disbilities that are still struggling in their late twenties to figure out how they can make their way in the World, stuck left behind when kids they grew up with have moved into adult roles. How I wish for an Empty Nest! I know I will miss him if and when he gets the ability to leave home, but I will be overjoyed to see him stand on his own two feet. I HOPE….

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