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.