Parents

An Olympic-sized empty nest: What will Yuna Kim's mom do now?

Feb. 21, 2014 at 12:07 AM ET

epa04089214 Kim Yuna of South Korea reacts after the Figure Skating Ladies Short Program at Iceberg Skating Palace during the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games...
HOW HWEE YOUNG / EPA
Silver medalist Yuna Kim competes in Sochi, which could mark the end of her skating career -- a career in which her mother has been heavily invested, both emotionally and financially.

Mee-hee Park, the mother of South Korean Olympic figure skater Yuna Kim, has devoted her life to her daughter’s success. Kim’s gold medal in Vancouver in 2010, and silver in Sochi yesterday, came at a personal cost for Park and the rest of their family: Park quit her painting lessons, stopped participating in community meetings and left her husband and other daughter in South Korea so she could travel with Kim.

“I majored in Yuna,” Park wrote in a memoir that was a best-seller in South Korea, where Kim is a huge star. “For Yuna, I studied harder than when I was in school. I devoted myself to her more passionately than when I was in love.”

Kim, now 23, announced her plans to retire after winning the silver at Sochi. After losing her identity in her daughter's skating career, what will Park do now?

It’s a question every parent must face as children grow up and move out. But parents of elite athletes can face an extreme version of empty nest syndrome. For the rest of us, these Olympic parents can be either cautionary tales or role models for how to support your children’s dreams without losing your own identity.

D.A. Franklin, the mother of swimmer Missy Franklin, took two years off from her physician practice to help her daughter handle the slew of mail and requests for interviews and photo shoots that came before and after she won five medals, four of them gold, at the London 2012 Olympics.

Throughout Missy’s childhood, Franklin drove her daughter to and from practices, fixed healthy meals and snacks, and helped her with homework and other extracurriculars — and said she made sure to distinguish her role as the mom, not the coach.

“While I was interested in how the practices went, I didn’t need to supervise them,” Franklin told TODAY Moms. “That was the coach who did that.”

Instead she used her daughter’s practice time for grocery shopping, reading medical journals or having a date night with her husband. Missy was responsible for waking herself up for early practices, her mom says, and she decided on her own to give up other sports and focus on swimming.

“We just wanted her to be an active, healthy kid,” D.A. Franklin says. “The only reason we were there was because it was her sport. It wasn’t our sport.”

Still, the Franklins are struggling to adjust to living in a house without Missy, who left for college last fall.

“I had no idea the empty nest would physically hurt so much. My heart actually ached,” D.A. Franklin says. “I wanted to just sit in a chair all day. It seemed like there wasn't a reason to move anymore.”

Even at the non-Olympic level, being a mom and keeping up with your kids’ sports and activities can be a full-time job.

Laurie Golden, a Plymouth, Mich., mother of three, enjoys being a sports mom but admits it is tough to set aside “me” time. Between driving the kids to practices, packing snacks, doing laundry and cheering at their games, she has struggled to find time to schedule a hair appointment or go shopping.

“Consequentially, most of my casual wear clothing features a team logo of some kind,” she says.

As a team manager, Golden has seen moms take their investment in their kids’ sports to the extreme, such as talking down other players or harassing the coach about playing time.

“As a mom, I want to help my child reach his or her goals, not my goals, and that's where some moms cross the line,” Golden says. “If your whole identity is wrapped up in being a sports mom, you will have a big void left in your life when that ends.”

So, how can you be a supportive mom and stay involved in your child’s life while still maintaining your own identity?

“It’s very important to have something that you care about in addition to parenting, to follow things that you feel passionate about,” says psychotherapist and TODAY contributor Dr. Robi Ludwig. Parents should think about how they can grow as people themselves, she said, because “that’s being a great role model for your children as well.”

Dr. Ludwig says overinvolved parents trying to live through their children can “rob [kids] of the right to make their own choices and confidence and ability to make choices.” On the flip side, she notes, raising kids to be independent adults can be “bittersweet, because they need you but don’t need you at the same time.” 

Franklin is adjusting well to her empty nest, and still talks to her daughter on the phone daily.

“After 18 years of being ‘mom,’ my role was changing and I needed to grieve and then figure out what was next for me,” D.A. Franklin says.

Since Missy started college, Franklin has resumed her physician practice, signed up for cooking classes, scheduled dinner dates with her husband and friends, and started renovations on the house — though she’s found every excuse not to work on Missy’s old room.

“Today I look in that room and see a couple of stuffed animals, photos of school friends, trophies from her first sports, high school texts, and, hanging in the closet, her London Olympics team gear,” she says. “Some day, I'll reorganize and pack up this room, but right now I'm going to enjoy it — just the way it is.”

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