The empty nest: Reclaiming the coop


Megan Amos PHOTO CREDIT: Elite Images


Single mom Tanya Billmeyer and son, Tate. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed


Megan Amos PHOTO CREDIT: Elite Images


Jennifer Johnson, with sons Isaac (from left), Andrew, Chase and husband Chuck. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed


Single mom Tanya Billmeyer and son, Tate. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed


Megan Amos PHOTO CREDIT: Elite Images


Jennifer Johnson, with sons Isaac (from left), Andrew, Chase and husband Chuck. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed


Single mom Tanya Billmeyer and son, Tate. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed


Megan Amos PHOTO CREDIT: Elite Images


Jennifer Johnson, with sons Isaac (from left), Andrew, Chase and husband Chuck. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed


Single mom Tanya Billmeyer and son, Tate. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed


Jennifer Johnson, with sons Isaac (from left), Andrew, Chase and husband Chuck. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed


Jennifer Johnson, with sons Isaac (from left), Andrew, Chase and husband Chuck. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed


Single mom Tanya Billmeyer and son, Tate. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed


Megan Amos PHOTO CREDIT: Elite Images


Jennifer Johnson, with sons Isaac (from left), Andrew, Chase and husband Chuck. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed


Single mom Tanya Billmeyer and son, Tate. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed


Megan Amos PHOTO CREDIT: Elite Images


Jennifer Johnson, with sons Isaac (from left), Andrew, Chase and husband Chuck. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed


Single mom Tanya Billmeyer and son, Tate. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed


Megan Amos PHOTO CREDIT: Elite Images


Megan Amos PHOTO CREDIT: Elite Images


Single mom Tanya Billmeyer and son, Tate. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed


Megan Amos PHOTO CREDIT: Elite Images


Jennifer Johnson, with sons Isaac (from left), Andrew, Chase and husband Chuck. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed


Single mom Tanya Billmeyer and son, Tate. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed


Megan Amos PHOTO CREDIT: Elite Images


Jennifer Johnson, with sons Isaac (from left), Andrew, Chase and husband Chuck. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed


Single mom Tanya Billmeyer and son, Tate. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed


Megan Amos PHOTO CREDIT: Elite Images


Jennifer Johnson, with sons Isaac (from left), Andrew, Chase and husband Chuck. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed


Single mom Tanya Billmeyer and son, Tate. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed


Jennifer Johnson, with sons Isaac (from left), Andrew, Chase and husband Chuck. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed


Jennifer Johnson, with sons Isaac (from left), Andrew, Chase and husband Chuck. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed


Single mom Tanya Billmeyer and son, Tate. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed


Megan Amos PHOTO CREDIT: Elite Images


Jennifer Johnson, with sons Isaac (from left), Andrew, Chase and husband Chuck. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed


Single mom Tanya Billmeyer and son, Tate. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed


Megan Amos PHOTO CREDIT: Elite Images


Jennifer Johnson, with sons Isaac (from left), Andrew, Chase and husband Chuck. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed


Single mom Tanya Billmeyer and son, Tate. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed


Megan Amos PHOTO CREDIT: Elite Images

Re-feathering an empty nest

Megan Amos, a licensed mental health counselor and owner of Compass Counseling in Dubuque, offers these tips for parents who are or will soon be empty nesters:

  • Honor your feelings and give yourself time and space to grieve and adjust to a new normal. You might experience feelings of sadness, loss, longing for the past, loneliness, boredom, restlessness and even anger.
  • Seek support from friends and family, and engage in self-care. Schedule a massage, take a nap, make a lunch date with friends, clean out a closet, look through old photo albums, read a book, take a yoga class or go on a hike.
  • Find ways to stay in touch with your child. That might be finally breaking down and getting a Snapchat account or driving two hours just to take them to lunch. 
  • Be mindful of your expectations for yourself and your child. Allow your child to make decisions, avoid comparing them to their siblings or peers, and recognize that they might have a different vision for this next phase of life than you had expected or hoped for them. Offer unconditional support, and allow them to make choices. 
  • Reframe the idea that you are stepping away or giving up your role as a caregiver, and acknowledge that your role is changing. This transition often creates the opportunity for positive growth in your relationship with your child.
  • Accept that your role as a caregiver is changing. This can be challenging because you see your child as needing your love and guidance. And they do. They just need it in a different way. Accepting this, while not easy, will bring you peace.
  • Find new ways to show your love. Send a care package, help them decorate their dorm room to make it feel like home or offer to FaceTime with them before their big interview to give them a pep talk and a virtual hug.
  • Reevaluate what you enjoy. It could be a good time to take on more responsibility at work, take that trip or finally devote the time to train for that marathon.
  • Parents often find themselves feeling lonely or missing the connections to other parents they found through their children’s activities. This is a great time to plan a coffee date with the softball moms you spent so much time with during all those games. Connect with other parents who are having similar experiences. 
  • Single parents often face greater feelings of loneliness or even isolation when their only or last child leaves the nest. They often feel as though they have no one to talk to and no one who can understand what they are going through. It’s important to find a support person to lean on, whether it’s a close friend, a family member or a professional.
  • As with any type of adjustment or grief, your feelings of sadness should see a gradual improvement. If symptoms of stress, loneliness, anxiety or depression begin to affect your every day functioning — difficulty focusing at work, lack of motivation or interest, partner relationship strains or difficulty communicating — reach out for professional help.

The words “empty nest” have become so synonymous with children leaving home that psychologists even have a term for the parental depression that often accompanies it: Empty nest syndrome.

Although we know from the moment they’re born that raising a child to be an independent soul is the end goal, letting go can be painful.

Jennifer Johnson and Tanya Billmeyer are two Dubuque moms who will soon experience, or already have experienced, having their fledglings leave the nest.

While they admit to feelings of sadness and a major change in routine, they’re also excited about the time they’ll have to pursue passions and interests, make community connections and regain a sense of identity that often can be lost to motherhood.

Johnson, 51, and her husband, Chuck, are the parents of three sons: Chase, 23; Isaac, 20; and Andrew, 18.

Chase is finishing his master’s degree at the University of Iowa, Isaac is a sophomore there, and Andrew is finishing his senior year at Dubuque Hempstead High School.

“Andrew has kind of already put us in the empty nest phase by the fact that he’s not home a lot,” Johnson said. “All of a sudden my schedule of going to orchestra concerts and track meets and basketball games is slowly winding down.”

Johnson said the mixed emotions are palpable.

“I’m kind of dreading it,” she said. “We’ve really enjoyed being parents and following all of their activities and sports.”

Johnson said she is taking to heart some advice her mother gave her.

“My mom said an older woman shared with her once how much she would enjoy her time, and it turned out to be true (for my mom),” she said. “Your whole life has been consumed with being parents and being a mom, and when you have that free time again, it’s hard to imagine how you’re going to fill that time. I’m going to trust my mom that I’ll be able to do it.”

Johnson plans on continuing the part-time job she’s had since her oldest son was born and has started to look into volunteer opportunities in the community.

“I might volunteer for a reading program or help with a math program,” she said. “I’ve thought about the tutoring program at the Dream Center. In the back of my mind, I might do something like that.”

And Johnson isn’t the only one feeling the “shrinking pains” in the house.

“When Isaac left for college, suddenly Andrew was all by himself,” she said. “(The boys) have always really enjoyed each other a lot. Being down to one kid and not having nearly as much energy and activity in the house, it became really clear that in a few years, things were going to be different.”

Billmeyer, 48, is a single mom to son Tate, 18, who is a freshman at the University of Iowa

“It was a little different for me,” said Billmeyer, who owns Float ’n Fly Wellness Studio in Dubuque. “Most of my friends have more than one kiddo, and they have this time to reconnect to their spouse. I felt like, for me, all of the Band Aids got ripped off at once. Some people can crawl-walk-run through it, and I feel I just went into a dead sprint.”

Billmeyer said many of her adult relationships formed while Tate was involved in competitive swimming.

“I spent a lot of years sitting on bleachers watching him swim,” she said. “A lot of my relationships revolved around my son and his activities. So now if I’m going to continue those relationships, it’s got to be for a different reason.”

While her business keeps her busy, Billmeyer said she’s excited about pursuing her hobbies and reconnecting in the community, although she knows it won’t be easy.

“I used to enjoy biking, and then it got put aside because I was busy with swim meets and with Tate,” she said. “And that was OK. But now, I’m going back and looking at these things again and finding out if this is something I’m still interested in. What can I do in my community and with my friends? How can I stay connected, because our kiddos aren’t the common thread anymore.”

Besides the internal dialogue that comes with rediscovering oneself, Billmeyer said her relationship with her son is changing.

“He’s a super smart kid and an old soul,” she said. “When he comes back home, I can see that our relationship is evolving.”

Part of that evolving relationship includes passing the torch of everyday tasks and errands from mother to son.

“Like ‘You have to make a dentist appointment’ or ‘You need to get a haircut,’ she said. “’You mean you’re not going to call?’ No, he should schedule that. Here’s more responsibility and more accountability. It’s shifting, but in a positive way. You have to give them their wings so they can move forward in life.”

While the nest might be empty, chances are it won’t be for long.

Johnson’s oldest son, Chase, is married, and now she is hoping that the house might fill up again in the not-so-distant future with the next generation.

“It’s not a complete impossibility that we could have grandkids soon,” she said. “And that’s exciting to think about.”

Michelle London writes for the Telegraph Herald.

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