They say for parents “the days are long, but the years are short,” and now the true significance of those pearls of wisdom are sinking in as I prepare for my son to turn 18 and finish high school in just a few months.

I was 31 years old when I gave birth to my one and only child, and at the time I was a young associate at a downtown family law firm, married to a man I had known since college, and together we had a lovely house we had just renovated in Chevy Chase. As we brought our little bundle of joy home from Sibley Hospital, I firmly believed we had a solid foundation for a happily ever after story.

Over the next 18 months, however, our very different views on core issues about parenting, religion, lifestyle choices, finances, and personal aspirations became insurmountable challenges for us.  Ultimately, I made the difficult decision to end our marriage, which then forced me to start practicing what I was preaching to my clients about the need to share custody and minimize the conflict for my own son’s sake.

Being a single parent for over a decade gave me a preview of what it would be like when my son would eventually leave our home. On the nights and weekends that he was with his father, I learned to entertain myself, and for holidays or special occasions I discovered the surest way to avoid disappointment was to rely on my own plans.  

This past year, as I approached my 49th birthday I could almost hear the clock ticking in the background as I doubled down on my efforts to prepare for being an empty nester, just as my son began to assert more of his independence.  Even though COVID presented certain unforeseen challenges, I still managed to enjoy traveling on my own, exercising daily, dating, learning new recipes, making new friends, and venturing back out to concerts, movies, and shows.  And, once this pandemic is behind us and my true empty-nester status kicks in, I am looking forward to pursuing even more adventures.

Sadly, many parents in an intact family focus so much on work and parenting, that they leave very little opportunity for the adult parents to enjoy time alone, travel as a couple, or check-in  with each other as individuals during a normal date night on a regular basis.  This leads to an immense disconnect that becomes blatantly apparent when the kids head off to college.   In my professional experience, this is why many couples file for divorce soon after their youngest leaves the nest.

If you don’t want to be part of that “gray divorce” trend, I suggest you start scheduling date nights with your partner, make plans to travel as a couple, and talk about how you picture your lives once the kids move out.   In the event that these conversations become difficult, rather than avoid them, reach out to a couples counselor and get some help.  It’s super important to be honest and have clarity, especially the older we get. 

For some couples, there is just too much resentment, anger, or disappointment that has built up over the years, and it only takes one person to make the decision to not move forward together once the kids are off to college.  Rather than torture yourself while hitting the rewind button to try and decipher whether that person was faking his/her feelings for the past ten or twenty years, try to work on accepting that the relationship has simply met its logical conclusion.  What I mean by that is that you should not burden yourself with feelings of failure– to have maintained a romantic relationship for over a decade is a success in my book, but to continue working together requires the commitment and willing participation of both parties. 

Children, at whatever age they may be, do not need to know the details of what their parents are going through when the decision to part ways is made.  They have their own issues to deal with, and all they need to know is that (1) both parents will continue to love them; (2) disruptions to their lives will be kept to a minimum; and (3) they were not the cause of their parents’ break-up.  Less is best when you think about sharing any updates about your legal marital status or dating life with them. 

Raising healthy, well adjusted children is no small feat, especially over the past two decades!  Becoming an empty nester, therefore, should be a time for celebration, and we should embrace the opportunities now presented to either rediscover parts of ourselves that we sacrificed while raising kids, or pursue new interests that will bring us joy.  This is our time to focus more on our own needs and wants, to pursue those endeavors that we find most meaningful, and build those loving relationships that bring us the most satisfaction.

In the end, whether you are entering that empty nester status as a married couple or single parent, we all have some work to do.  Our daily schedules, routines, and roles are all being redefined.  All these changes will be challenging, and it’s okay to ask for help as you transition into this new part of your life.  Meanwhile, don’t dwell on regrettable moments, I assure you that very few had things work out exactly according to the plan they laid out all those years ago when they first became parents, and it is that very ability to recover from setbacks, adapt and recalibrate that modeled resiliency for our children, who will soon leave home and truly start adulting while we all move on to pursue our happily ever after. 

By Regina A. DeMeo