Talk To Me: I feel lost since my only daughter left home for college 

Psychologist Caroline Martin is here to answer your questions on whatever issues you are dealing with in life, from work pressure and stress to loneliness and grief
Talk To Me: I feel lost since my only daughter left home for college 

Unlike the departure of your sons, your daughter’s exit heralds the end of an era. 

My only daughter left home for college recently. I’m delighted for her but feel heartbroken. I miss our daily chats about her friends, social life and favourite TV shows. Her two older brothers are working abroad and are rarely in touch. My husband is a big rugby fan and very involved in the local club, so he’s nearly always busy. I have friends but we only meet occasionally. I feel lost and lonely.

Your youngest child has flown the coop. Despite all the intense signalling rituals, exam results, CAO offers, and debutant balls, it can feel like a bolt from the blue. Even previous experiences with your sons may feel like poor preparation.

As a parent, it can feel like you are constantly ‘on call’. As each son left, you could quickly pivot and turn your attention to the other children. This time it’s different. Your body instinctively turns in its well-oiled maternal way, only to discover an empty nest. Your heart breaks while your brain realises this is the right and proper order of events. This incongruence can be so disorientating.

Your children have been the magnetic north for your compass — guiding your actions, decisions and plans for some time. Now, in the absence of their magnetism, the compass is spinning. You may need to stop and catch your breath until the clouds stop swirling above you.

Unlike the departure of your sons, your daughter’s exit heralds the end of an era. 

You may be grieving, not only the presence of your daughter but also the hum of a busy home with familiar sounds of school bags hitting the ground, joyous laughter, ominous silences and doors slamming. 

This grief, like any other grief, is a process that can take some time to work through. It’s OK to feel sad. Many parents experience grief when their children leave for college. This sadness is likely to be temporary, most parents find they’ve rediscovered joy within a few months; others discover it much sooner. You’ve built a close relationship with your daughter and it is entering another phase, one with new discoveries and insights.

When our children head off to college, the familiar ping of the parents’ WhatsApp messaging group can fall silent and the friendships formed with other parents can falter. It’s not surprising that so many parents suddenly find themselves lonely. Having prioritised your children’s needs for so long, it can be difficult even to articulate your needs as an empty nester, never mind being mindful of your partner’s emotional needs.

Caroline Martin, psychologist. Photograph: Moya Nolan
Caroline Martin, psychologist. Photograph: Moya Nolan

It is important first to allow some space to consider the weight of this change for yourself. Allow the clouds to stop swirling, for the sky to appear, and for clarity to emerge. Take time to reflect, reminisce, use all your senses and record your thoughts and feelings. Using a journal at this time can be a helpful exercise as you navigate through this journey.

Try to resist making assumptions about your husband’s apparent busyness with the rugby club. He will be processing this new reality in his way. 

This shift in the home is a good time to refocus on your relationship. It may be important to acknowledge the distance that has unintentionally materialised and perhaps decide to rediscover each other. It can be tempting to stay stuck in the grief — this can help us avoid addressing any fear that our marriage doesn’t have what it takes to adapt and grow. This is often courageous work.

However, many women report greater marriage satisfaction after their children leave home. Without the distraction of children’s needs, couples are free to be more present for each other, even if the amount of time together doesn’t increase. 

Placing emphasis on the quality of your time together rather than the quantity may give rise to a different way of engaging with one another.

Make time also to rediscover or discover activities that make your heart sing for the first time. While this may be an abandoned interest, you ought to consider how the accumulated wealth of experience as a parent may now open new avenues of enquiry. Be playful with your musings. Find your passion, and you will find your people, and this will help reignite your energy, your power.

Our circle of friends may change, reflecting the different emphasis in the course of our lives. It is fitting that new friendships will emerge now, and existing ones may deepen or fall away. Talk to your friends. You may be surprised how your feelings are shared with them. 

I am reminded of the beautiful quote by C S Lewis: ‘Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one’.

Take care.

  • Do you have a question for Caroline? If so, please email it to parenting@examiner.ie

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