So, you've folded the extra-long twin size sheets and you've loaded the new shower caddy with soap that you hope will see action, but parents of soon-to-be college freshmen, be honest: this summer has offered a last, brief moment to stick your heads in the (beach) sand and stay safely entrenched in denial. The reality of your children’s departure from the proverbial nest hasn't yet set in, and you're conveniently not thinking about it yet.
But mother of two grown sons and author Melissa T. Shultz says that approach doesn't work out well for anyone; in fact, such denial can make it harder for both parents and their children later. In an attempt to help other parents avoid that heartache, Shultz wrote "From Mom to Me Again: How I Survived My First Empty-Nest Year and Reinvented the Rest of My Life," a book exploring how to mentally and emotionally prepare for this milestone.
Shultz told TODAY Parents that she prepared for her own sons, Alex, now 23, and Nick, 21, to leave home for college in all the ways she believed were important, but she neglected a vital part of the process: herself.
"There were lots of lists and things being crossed off lists," she said. "In retrospect, it’s not that the things on the lists weren’t important — they were — but I was so consumed with giving him a sense of place at school that I didn’t allow myself the chance to think beyond that."
Shultz said that her lack of preparing herself probably stemmed from being afraid of her feelings. "As it turns out, you do need to let yourself process those feelings. Otherwise, they’ll creep up on you at the most unexpected and inopportune times," she said. "Trust me on this. I once lost it in the grocery store when I walked by his favorite cheese."
What can a mother do now to attend to herself and work through some of those big emotions before the official launch date arrives? Here are five of Shultz's recommendations:
1. Practice self care this summer. "Get up and off the couch," Shultz said. Exercise. Go to a museum. Hang out with the funniest person you know. "The goal is to keep moving, to explore new activities, or perhaps revisit a few that you did as a kid."
2. Express yourself. For Shultz, this meant writing, but for others, it might include painting, drawing, or playing an instrument. "Try a short story, begin a journal, pen letters to yourself, or even better, to your children," she said. "Say what you might have trouble saying aloud." Shultz wrote a popular essay about watching her firstborn grow up and processing that transition, "The Long Goodbye," for Ladies Home Journal after Alex left for college.
3. Shift your parenting focus. Start to see yourself as a mentor, Shultz suggests. "Let them take the lead on things like making medical appointments, handling conflicts with friends, discussing school issues with teachers, and researching internships and jobs," she said. "You’re still there for them as coach, but they’re the ones up to bat."
4. Think about your own next step. You’ve spent years helping your child grow and mature. Now, what about you? Shultz recommends asking yourself if there is something you’ve always wanted to try. What is it? "Visualize your future and take steps, regardless of how small, to get there," she said.
5. Take stock of your relationships. Shultz warns that this can be a time of transition for relationships — both love and friendship. "Not all friendships are meant to last forever," Shultz said. "Some run their natural course. Ask yourself who makes you happy and brings out the best in you? Whom do you admire?" In matters of love, Shultz said, kindness counts. "Experts say it’s the single most important trait of successful couples," she noted.
6. Purge, family style. You don’t need to save every physical object to retain sweet memories, Shultz said. Go through toys, school papers, art projects, and old costumes together as a family, she suggests. "Pare down — make memory boxes and fill them with the highlights, then store the boxes out of sight," she said. "This way, when the kids move away, you’ve made room for new memories and are less likely to be left alone with the blues."
When the big day comes, Shultz urges to let children be with their friends if they want to, as opposed to making a ceremony of your last day home with them. "Have dinner together, sure, do last minute packing — but know that this is a time when they’re not only leaving home and family, but the friendships they held so dear," she told TODAY Parents.
And if you can't bear to say goodbye, you can always write it down. When Shultz's youngest son was leaving for college, she wrote him a letter "instead of trying to say it all as we parted ways," which is now published in her book.
Along with a few last words of advice, Shultz wrote, "The clothes you laid out are ready to go. I added a few things — more hats and gloves for the winter and an extra blanket. Linens and towels, Band-Aids and balms. Your favorite books and comics. All pieces of your home for your new home.
"There’s one more thing: take my love with you.
"Long after I’m gone, it will be there for you."