On love and respect: reflections from an empty nest

Sending kids to college can raise feelings of loneliness for empty nesters, but can also be a time to reflect on, and reap the rewards of, parenting successes.

AP Photo/Indiana State University via The Indianapolis Star, Rachel Keyes
Peggy Kenworthy, 67, helps move her grandson, 18-year-old Lane Swanson, into the same dorm room she lived in 50 years ago at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Ind., August 16, 2013.

As of this afternoon, my nest will be empty. My youngest heads off to the dorms to begin her freshman year of college, while my oldest moved to Seattle last month. I suppose it’s logical that this is a time to reflect upon the parenting I’ve done in the last 22 years.

I feel fortunate that my husband and I have had excellent relationships with our kids. Every time someone has wanted to commiserate with me on the difficulties of raising teenagers, I haven’t been able to reciprocate. I thoroughly enjoyed my kids’ teenage years. There was no door-slamming, no yelling, no tears as a result of conflicts at home. The kids’ rooms were disaster areas, but I really didn’t mind. There was some foot-dragging about household chores, but they got done without fighting and only a soupçon of attitude.

One theme I’ve heard from my peers has been a general sense that their children haven’t given them the respect they owe them, haven’t demonstrated love and concern the way they were expected to. I have generally listened sympathetically and thanked my lucky stars. But I’ve thought more deeply about that, simply because, as I lose my kids’ constant presence, I’ve thought more deeply about what their presence has meant to me. I’ve come to appreciate even more what their love and respect have meant.

The more I thought about that, the more I realized I didn’t really “expect” these things. I mean, I guess I did – I certainly hoped for them – but I didn’t think about them much, about what I expected love and respect to look like. And I realize that perhaps that is why I appreciate them so much. They have felt more like gifts freely given than like something paid because they are owed.

When someone tells me “Give me this,” I often give it, but then it isn’t a gift; it’s an obligation. There is considerably less joy in the giving. For me, there would be less joy in the receiving under those circumstances, which is, I suppose, why I demand very little from those I love, yet seem to receive in abundance. Or perhaps I truly am just very lucky, and because they have been freely given, I have never had to ask. That is a distinct possibility.

I know there is a danger of seeming self-congratulatory here. That isn’t my intent. Really, it’s just to float the possibility to other parents that, the less tightly they dictate what love and respect must look like, the more likely they are to see them in places they had previously missed. Perhaps they won’t come in all the forms you want, but you will appreciate the ways they are shown because they are gifts, not payment due.

I know empty nesters who are incredibly glad to see the kids and the conflict go. They love their kids, no question, but they don’t miss the conflict. I don’t envy them the overall experience, but I can tell you, having kids you get along with leave is just about the most bitter-sweet experience out there. Every time I think (selfishly) how much I don’t want them to go, I remember how very much I want them to be happy, to find their passion, to live their lives, and they’re doing it, and it’s so exciting. But I cry a lot anyway.

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