Christmas and how the empty nest gets harder after college

I used to be one of those moms whose child — or children, plural — recently left for college. You know... the moms walking around with a dazed, how-the-heck-did-this-happen-so-fast look in their eyes, virtually visible cracks in their hearts as they miss the once little ones who have flown their nest. They're the moms who live for holiday breaks, spring breaks, summer breaks, for that's when their loved ones return home, back to the safety of the nest where mom can hold each one in her arms and savor the sweet scents and sounds of her babies all around.

family christmas stockings

I was one of those moms. That first year my daughters were scattered afar for schooling and such was rough. It got easier, though, as it does for all moms (and dads) whose kiddos have gone off for enrichment and enlightenment on the road to becoming full-fledged adults. I found new interests to enjoy, new career paths to pursue. I relished our time apart knowing that come holiday time, I'd have family time with those I loved most. I thought I had the empty nest thing down.

Boy, was I wrong.

Turns out the college years, the initial time of separating, was the easy part. The next phase — the final phase of empty nestdom — seems to be even tougher on my heart. Especially during the holidays.

See, when kids head off to college or out on their own, wherever that may be, moms know the kids will be back come holiday time for the festivities that make the family what it is. The traditions and timing that mark most of all the big holidays. The Thanksgivings, Christmases, Easters. Perhaps even New Year's, as was the case with my family. 

The kids are drawn to the hearth and home they've known all their lives.

But then they create their own hearths, their own homes. Their own nests. Nests filled with significant others. Significant others who — thankfully! — love and adore their new nest mate. Significant others with their own extended family and their own traditions. Significant others who now figure prominently into the equation of holiday time, holiday gatherings, holiday festivities with my extended family, my holiday traditions.

As all good partners do, kids who have grown into kind, compassionate adults take into consideration their partners when planning holiday time with Mom and Dad. Which means Mom and Dad must make room for additions to the family gatherings. And omissions, as well, when the adult child with a nest of his or her own, a new and significant relationship that matters, must adjust accordingly for the partner's wants, needs, traditions, family. Along with a few new traditions they've created for themselves.

Those additions and omissions have challenged this year's holiday agenda for my family. Though all three of my girls straddle the 30-year-old mark to some degree and my nest has been empty for some time, at least two daughters were always home for Christmas, even once they'd all moved out.

And the first year one of them was not home for the holidays — my middle daughter when she married and moved away — my oldest ended up in the hospital for emergency surgery Christmas Eve. Despite the trauma and scare, she was safe... and her situation saved us all from navigating a new type of Christmas, the kind with a family member missing. We were more concerned with my older daughter's health than my middle daughter's empty chair at Christmas doings.

After that, the emptying of all my daughters' chairs during Christmas was sporadic. A gathering here or there for one daughter to fit around our decades-long traditional holiday schedule. The middle daughter realizing after one difficult attempt that she, her husband and my grandsons would stay at home for the holidays going forward as travel with tots is too hard. Another daughter sleeping alone at her house Christmas night — but staying late Christmas Eve and returning early (in her jammies) Christmas Day. It wasn't in one fell swoop that my husband and I had Christmas hours alone.

sisters on christmas morning

This is the year of the one fell swoop. The permanent empty nest. The first Christmas without even one daughter celebrating all of Christmas with my husband and me from beginning to end.

Don't get me wrong. I'm thrilled to the core that my daughters all have partners to love and adore them, partners with whom they plan to build a future filled with their own traditions. I'm excited for them as they venture out to adorn their new lives with loved ones. 

But their gain is my loss. And my husband's loss. This will be the first Christmas not a single child will go to bed Christmas Eve under our roof. The first Christmas there won't be even one child waking up early to peek at stockings or enjoy the quiet moments alone near the tree before the sun and the rest of the family rises. The first time all the family — or even the majority of it — won't open presents together; we're gifting in shifts according to when our oldest and youngest daughters each plan to visit.

I do look forward to the new ways we've adjusted some of our old ways in order to accommodate my daughters' schedules and situations. And my husband and I are eager for early Christmas morning when just the two of us will open our gifts to one another, coffee in hand, Christmas music playing softly, with no kids around at that time for the first time in our decades together. It will be our new tradition.

It's just that new traditions made out of necessity can be hard on one's heart. And not just Mom's and Dad's, I've learned. One daughter's boyfriend shared that each time he and my daughter try to discuss how their holiday hours will be allotted, she cries. She's having a tough time letting go of childhood traditions and embracing the new adult ones.

We all are. But we will. We're simply in that first year of the new phase, reminiscent of when the kids left for college. Our hearts are visibly cracked a bit, our eyes reflect how-the-heck-did-this-happen-so-fast wonderment. Eventually, though, we all will adjust; we all will delight in our holiday time together yet relish our time apart.

Just as I did in that first phase of the empty nest — the one that in retrospect seems far easier as the separation from my children then was seasonal — I will get through this empty-nest phase which seems far more permanent.

Thankfully, this year's altered Christmas festivities will still include many hours with my loved ones. Though it will feel different, it promises joyful, family focused time just the same. I will cherish every single minute of it, from beginning to end.

And I will pray further unexpected empty-nest phases hold off a while longer. At least until I've gotten this one down.

Today's question:

What tradition began for you and yours after your nest had emptied?