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Don't Judge Me For Being So Sad In My Empty Nest

I'm being separated from the very best years of my life.

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illustration of sad parent when kids go to school and she has an empty nest
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There's nothing I hate more than the last part of August. These are the days when I want time to slow down rather than go by at daredevil speed. Because for me, there's only one more week or so when my life is "normal" — or "the way I love it most."

One more week when all three of my kids are home. One more week before my oldest returns for his senior year of college; one more week before my middle son starts his freshman year. One more week before my youngest begins her senior year of high school.

They won't all be under the same roof again until Christmas.

When my oldest left home for college the morning of Aug. 29, 2014, I truly understood for the first time the longing to hold on to the way things used to be that my own mother — gone many years now — must have felt when she wrapped her arms around me tight, some 32 years ago, as I left home for college.

I’d like to say it gets easier ― and a lot of parents say that it does ― but for me, at least, it doesn’t.

I should be thrilled that when I wake up in the morning, the milk carton won't be empty and there might be a few blueberries remaining in the fridge. And yet I can't suppress my sadness as I face the finale of an era during which toddlers clasped my hand while crossing the street, children consulted me about Halloween costumes, and teenagers sang their hearts out at the piano while devouring every snack food in sight. I’m grieving a core identity that's been forced to shift gears. I'm slowly being separated from my life as I've known it. A wonderful life. The very best years of my life, thus far.

But mostly I'm sad that I find it harder and harder to conjure up memories of my kids' first steps, first words, how hard they all laughed that time I fell out of the kayak. The reality is — it's all growing a bit fuzzy. Before long, they may wash away completely. As I’ve often said, you think you’ll remember every key milestone of your kids’ lives — but you won’t. Oddly enough, I can rattle off my childhood phone number but I find it nearly impossible to draw out of cold storage a recollection of my oldest kid’s first bike ride. Didn’t he used to love Blue's Clues? I think so. But it's hard to remember.

Mostly I sit here and wish I'd enjoyed my kids more. Overnight, I've become that middle-aged woman who turns to the young mother at the next table in a restaurant and warns her to make the most of every minute.

Some parents might read this and think, “What’s wrong with you? Why are you so sad? This is what your kids are supposed to be doing. Wouldn’t the alternative be so much worse?”

And they'd be right. Of course, no parent wants her kid to be so dependent, he or she never leaves home. But the truth is, every parent experiences the empty nest differently, and it’s not for any of us to tell others how we think they should or shouldn’t feel.

I have friends who jumped for joy when their child left for college and others who cried buckets.

In a column titled “Saying Goodbye to My Child, the Youngster,” published a few years back in the Washington Post, writer Michael Gerson said that dropping his eldest son off at college was the worst thing that time had done to him.

“With due respect to my son’s feelings, I have the worse of it. I know something he doesn’t — not quite a secret, but incomprehensible to the young,” he wrote. “He is experiencing the adjustments that come with beginnings. His life is starting for real. I have begun the long letting go.”

I couldn’t agree more.

For me, I always knew this phase would be hard. But I guess I never knew it would be this hard ― for so long. Yes, the fog does lift, of course, and you do find yourself being weirdly swallowed up by new friends and a new life. Making plans certainly helps and, eventually, you adapt to your new status. A chapter has ended but another definitely has begun.

And besides, it’s only 17.5 weeks until Christmas.

Illustration by LA Johnson