A New Empty Nester Learns How to Take the Planning out of Life

New leaf.

  • Category
    Health, People
  • Written by
    Robin Finn
  • Illustrated by
    Yuiko Sugino

After 23 years, I am done.

I sit in a folding chair in the high school auditorium and gaze at the 50 graduates in red caps and gowns, the faculty in black robes, the other parents in sundresses and jeans. My daughter and husband sit next to me. In my hand is a printed program opened to the alphabetized list of students’ names. My kid is number 27 on the list.

After 23 years of parenting, I am about to have the proverbial empty nest. My youngest, number 27, is graduating from high school. After 23 years of parenting, I ask myself, Now what? What is the plan?

Having a child with severe ADHD and two out-of-the-box learners was not part of my plan. Neither was becoming a full-time advocate, arguing at parent-teacher conferences, or publishing essays about parenting. But that’s what happened. Year after year, I doggedly attempted to plan each kid’s trajectory, but rarely did my planning come to fruition. Mothers of special-needs kids understand: The only plan that succeeds is preparing for the unexpected. Still, I could not let go of planning.

I thought if I had a plan, maybe I could force things to go my way. Maybe I could strong-arm the universe into following the program I created and was deeply attached to. The thing about planning, though, is that it keeps you out of the now. 

Now, for the first time in decades, I was on the other side of what I call the rush years—the years of nonstop advocating and kid-related problem-solving. The only plan I had to make now was for myself.

I thought that in my empty nest, I would embrace being fully present in my life. Be here now, I told myself. Now I am wearing pajamas. Now I am drinking a smoothie. Now I am walking the dog. But the now did not feel sublime. It felt weird and uncomfortable.

For a mother, it takes time to adjust to the reality that your children are young adults who for the most part can fend for themselves. It takes time to redirect your thoughts to your life now instead of planning their futures. Sure, parenting has been challenging, but so is letting go.

I don’t know if I will be zen when my youngest leaves for college in the fall. I don’t know if I will celebrate the endless me time, or walk around the house bewildered, wondering what just happened. Or both. Or neither. But I do know that holding my future loosely helps me live in the present—and that the only time I have is now.

Robin Finn is the founder of LA-based Heart. Soul. Pen., which offers writing workshops for women. She is working on a book about writing as a means of radical self-expression. More at robinfinn.com.