Peggy Drexler

(WOMENSENEWS)–Mother’s Day was always big at our house. But as the kids have grown, it has lost a little of its luster; more important than Valentine’s Day, but not quite Thanksgiving.

I’m loved and appreciated. But there is no doubt it has become a noteworthy holiday, the note being: "Thursday–get mom a card."

Dad, it seems, is no longer a reliable reminder to a 30-year-old son and a 16-year-old daughter whose level of concern with family ceremony falls short of what Hallmark might wish.

But Mother’s Day has changed for me, too.

Increasingly it’s a good time for an emotional checkup on my state of readiness for my post-caregiver life.

For some with densely packed families the question of readiness comes up on them like a fast-moving cold front. In a few years, they go from cheerful household chaos to quiet Saturday mornings.

With widely spaced children, the summer of my hands-on responsibilities has been happily extended. But change is in the air.

Bedroom doors stay closed. Parental IQ has taken a sudden double-digit drop. The simple rituals–going to the movies, exercising together and just hanging out–have dwindled and, when they do happen, are complicated by the potential for peer embarrassment.

The Final Act

I know these signs well because I’ve seen them before. As an older mother of a second child, I had a long dress rehearsal for this final act.

I remember moving into a small neighborhood in San Francisco, where kids played in the streets and swept from house to house like sparrows.

Even in simpler and safer times, I still kept tabs on my son from the window. When he and his playmates wheeled around a neighbor’s house and out of sight, I had to fight down the urge to follow.

In seventh grade he decided he could no longer accompany us to the movies. And on the rare occasion when he did, he would sit in a different row. The guys had started calling him "Drex." Cool nicknames are hard-earned, and he was not going to jeopardize his by being spotted munching Jujubes with mom and dad.

I have also experienced a definitive act of separation: the day you drop a child off at college. As you turn on to the highway, you know you are leaving something behind that never truly comes back.

We lived on the West Coast. Our son went to college in the East. On a visit, I reflexively started to straighten his bed. The reaction was the same as if I had tried to talcum his bottom. Message received.

Abandoned Bedroom

On visits home after he moved into his first apartment, he abandoned his old room and started to stay in the guest bedroom on another floor. Maybe it was a need for privacy. More likely it was a statement: "I have my own place now. When I’m here, I’m a guest."

I’ve had more time than most women to contemplate the big question: After the close-quarters combat of the mid-teen years and the sequential separations that follow, what’s next?

Given the time allotted and my job as a psychologist, you would think I’d have a good answer for that. I don’t.

I’ve even done some research. Advice runs from hobbies to charity work to Prozac to get over it.

The get-over-it camp cites evidence that more parents than conventional wisdom would suggest are just fine with the empty nest. Some even call empty nest syndrome–the depression, emptiness and loss of purpose–a figment of the media based on faulty 70s-era research.

In fact, argues the research, parents having the house to themselves again opens the way to stronger relationships, new interests and a new life. Just as children move on, so do we. There is a new calm in a house shared by fewer people. Order returns to a place that once housed open cereal boxes and peanut butter on refrigerator doors.

Redefining Separation

The whole idea of separation is being redefined.

With technology dissolving barriers of time and location, distance no longer limits communication to letters. Pennies-a-minute phone calls and portable e-mail mean kids can ask for money any place, any time.

Millions have had the chance to ease into the idea. With the explosion of working women, family ties are more fluid than in the past. A generation has grown up without mom and dad constantly at their side. They are fine with that, and so are their parents.

But logic and statistics mean little if you feel like a job to which you have dedicated your adult life has been downsized.

My husband and I will have been hands-on parents for more than 30 years by the time our daughter departs for school.

For far longer than most, we have not had an empty nest. And later than most, we are going to be sifting through the options of our newly child-free home.

How will I react? Who will I be? What will I do in those spaces filled by children? Will things be as fun as they are when you get to see them through eyes seeing them for the first time?

I don’t have the answers. But I think I have a strategy. Diversions won’t alter reality and medication just hides under pink fluffy clouds of delusion.

I think the key is to embrace the pain. Feel the loss. Let in the emptiness. It’s as real and right as your decision to shape lives in the first place. You are the reason they have straight teeth, good values and bright prospects. This is part of the job you have done to the best of your ability. The joy now is less about the doing, and more about the results. Enjoy your handiwork.

Do I really believe that? I have one year to think about it. Right now, my daughter needs a ride to school.

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University. She is the author of "Raising Boys Without Men." Peggy can be reached at