Kindergarten: A Glimpse Of Empty Nest?

Natalie and I met in the comments section of one of my posts on MariaShriver.com, where she mentioned her work with empty nest. It’s so rare that I meet other professionals who focus on transitions that I immediately and excitedly contacted her via email and, as empty nest is a bit of a hole on my site, I asked if she would contribute a guest post on this topic. Through our email discussions, the topic evolved to include the parenthood transition of starting Kindergarten, a popular (and often painful) topic for many of my friends and clients at this time of year. The following post is an intersection of these two topics of transition.

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I met with a mother and father yesterday, and together we watched their little one kick the soccer ball while continuously wiping her blonde hair out of her face.  She didn’t want a barrette.  Mom and dad were wiping their tears while sharing their story of the big first day of Kindergarten.

The girl looked up and said, “I have homework.”

The mom and dad smiled. We talked about car pool or walking, “We want to drive her the first week, but then for sure get a car pool. Walk some days, but probably not realistic with work schedules.” They looked at each other. No smiles.

Father said he fought the tears on the yard while the teacher came out and met the kids. She lined them up, and had them wave goodbye to mom and dad. His daughter was swinging her lunch box from her tiny hand. Mom couldn’t fight the tears either, “I won’t see her for hours today.”

Yes, Kindergarten: that first window of empty nest. You feel the silence at home. You miss your precious one jumping in front of you, calling your name, and singing ”itsy bitsy spider” in the car. You feel time moving faster than you like. You know a stage of parenting has just ended.You grieve for that time to come back, even though you are excited about school days and some free time for you.

My daughter is out of college and working. Oh, that doesn’t sound possible because what age does that make me? I won’t answer. After all, it is the internal feeling, not the number, right?

I still see and feel those memories of the first day at Kindergarten. Shopping with her for her favorite outfit (twirly red and white skirt) the Tweety Bird lunch box, the green grapes, and cheese sandwich. I also remember telling her to help others and stay curious.

We used to tell stories about something curious in that day, the bug on the leaf, for example, and asking, ‘What was he thinking while eating the greens?’ She knows what curious is.

As she got older, I now remember a teacher asking me, “Why does she ask why all the time?”  Do I feel badly for that behavior or cheer it on?  I cheer it on. She still asks why.

You, the parents, are feeling the shift in your role as mom and dad. Now there is a teacher. You might not be the only love of their life. Ouch!

Here are some suggestions for your new shift:

  • Stay at home parents share with me that they don’t think they have enough time to really start something while their children are at kindergarten. You will enjoy the free time more if you choose something you like to do. It is an adjustment of time management. Not because you aren’t good at it, but because your feelings are at the surface now. Ask yourself what invigorates you? Who lifts your spirits? What place in your city do you like to visit? What book is at the bottom of the basket that you could read outside or on the sofa? Who do you want to have a chat with on the telephone or write a letter too? What art project is fun for you?  What exercise class? Make friends with this awkward free time feeling. You get to begin a new routine and change your mind.
  • Let yourself weep when you feel the tears. This is a real change. It doesn’t have to make sense why you feel what you feel. Feelings are simply feelings, not monsters.
  • If you can shift your work schedule and plan ahead to be at their school activities, do it. I have no regrets when I look back at my time with my daughter. That is comforting when you see them, less as they come more independent, which, by the way, is your goal. I was and am a working mother.
  • Little ones just brighten your day, especially your little one, so again, understand why this transition is emotional. Love is love. No one wants to hug someone goodbye that they love being with even when they will return. It is not so much about the goodbye, but more about letting go of the role you had and including this new transition of development.  Maggie shared with me that she wouldn’t be having more children, so this is it. The “this is it” brought up other endings she lived, so tears fell. Memories are magnets for other memories.
  • Write yourself a letter about what you love about parenting and what you don’t like. Giving time to both of your inner voices will be a reality check about how you are experiencing parenting today. No judgment. It may spark you to focus more on yourself and therefore, allow you to enjoy this free time when they are in school. Parenting is sacrificing parts of you that have to go dormant.  When the off-to-college stage arrives, you will have memories and practices of self-care.
  • If you are a worrier, now is an opportunity to notice what you are saying in your head when you worry. Hear that voice inside you. How often are you hearing that voice in a day? That repetitive voice is the behavior I compare to a hamster on a wheel. Jump off that worry wheel or the habit of worry will take energy away from you that you need for other moments. You can’t prepare or predict all the challenges that will pop up in parenting.  Tell yourself, “If there is a problem, I can handle it. I can get support and I will be ok. Challenges are part of life. Perfection is limiting.”
  • Transitions are an invitation to build inner resources.  Ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now, what do I need today, and how can I get that?” Get to know yourself over and over. Who you are and who you aren’t.
  • Play music at home. It naturally lifts your spirit. Practice doing nothing of any worldly value, which might mean not being productive. I needed practice just sitting on the sofa, sitting with no newspaper to read, no buttons to sew, no background noise. I played music when I wanted to lift my energy.

I am a big believer of having support. I didn’t always get it, so I started gatherings myself, support groups in my living room. I had mommy and me groups, swim classes in my backyard pool with a certified swim teacher and other parents with their children, weekend art parties, and women’s groups.

These are examples of ways we parents met and bonded:

Yes, I worked. I was a Speech and Language Therapist. I wanted a community of people while parenting. No one wants to do it alone. I was married and divorced and then re-married during my parenting years.

When the school years began, there were always birthday parties, sports, events, as you know. I loved all that and at the same time, I needed quiet time. I took it.  That’s another story of how successful and not successful I was at carving out me time.

We want to be met right where we are. We don’t need to be “fixed.” We need a way to see the gift and the curse of new situations. Practice opening to those parts of you that don’t get much airtime, like the image of a Sunday buffet full of choices.

Happy Kindergarten year. I’d love to see your children’s art on the refrigerator door.  Mine is blank, no school schedules, no sports events, no art.  Yes, postcards of travels, quotations I love, invitations for me and hubby, and, I admit, cards from my daughter, even if they are from last year’s Mother’s day.

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 Natalie Caine has shared wisdom, tips, and comfort to thousands of people across the country as they deal with happy and challenging life transitions. She writes monthly columns for four top websites about transitions, as well as blogs and articles for her own active website, www.emptynestsupport.com. She has been featured in top media, including Time Magazine, USA Today, Huffington Post, Better Homes and Gardens, N. Y. Times, L.A. Times, Washington  Post, Lifetime Radio for Women, Chicago Tribune, Sirius, Associated Press, Miami Herald, and many more. Natalie lives in Los Angeles with her husband and cat, and her college graduate daughter works in San Fransisco. Natalie starts her day tending her organic vegetable and flower garden and uses her digital camera to capture its beauty, anticipating what surprises will inspire her that day.