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Harry and Liz Joe's last child will graduate from college this year. Over the last 10 years, they have dealt with their emptying nest and have found happiness in their child-free home.

“I love the freedom my husband and I enjoy, and I love the quiet orderliness of a clean house. ... At the same time I miss the exciting confusion the children and their friends provided. I miss the dinner table discussions ... and the silly songs we sang as we did the dishes. ... I’m ready to go out to dinner more and to cook less, but I’m not sure I’m ready to have my primary parenting years behind me.”

Written by a high school principal after her last child left for college (from Letting Go, by Karen Levin Coburn and Madge Lawrence Treeger)

LIZ (’70) AND HARRY (’70) JOE READ the 1988 book Letting Go to help them through the transition of sending their children off to college.

“I thought it was going to be a terribly difficult thing to do, and it was at times,” Liz says of having to cope with the onset of empty-nest syndrome. “The book helped us remember that although our life was different without our children, it was not as different as their lives were without us,” she says.


Expecting the worst

As they look back on the transition — their youngest child is in her senior year at college — they say it was a happier experience than they anticipated.

Bert Hayslip Jr., a UNT Regents Professor of psychology, says the reaction is typical. “The empty nest is often worse in anticipation than in day-to-day practice,” he says.

That’s because more often than not, the children who leave do not completely cut off contact with their parents, nor are they gone forever.

In fact, empty-nest syndrome is more a series of life events than a sudden change, Hayslip says. And that makes it easier to deal with.


That empty feeling

That’s not to say there aren’t tough moments.

“Empty-nest syndrome affects every family and every person differently, making it hard to generalize about,” Hayslip says. “But there is a common element of loss and sadness.”

For Liz, that empty feeling strikes when she least expects it.

“It hits me in the grocery store when I realize I don’t have to buy graham crackers because there’s no one at home who eats them,” she says.

Hayslip says those moments are normal, and healthy. “What makes loss difficult is the idea that what we’ve lost is irreplaceable,” he says.

“With the empty-nest syndrome, parents typically are dealing with the loss of the parenting role, not with having really lost their child,” Hayslip says. “They’re just having to find a new way to relate to their child.”

And that usually comes naturally as time progresses. “As with many things, the passage of time heals the pain of loss,” he says.


A different nest

For Jackie Chambers (’80), time can’t move fast enough. She brought her daughter, Monique, to UNT last fall for her freshman year.

Monique Chambers started her sophomore year at UNT this fall.

She says it was one of the hardest things she has ever done.

“I readily go pick her up when she wants to come home,” Jackie says. “But I’ve yet to take her back. It was too hard the first time, and I don’t want to cry like that again.”

The separation was also hard for Monique, who missed being involved with her extended family.

“We’re very close, and it was hard for me to get used to not always knowing what my mom and my aunts and my grandmother were doing,” Monique says.

But eventually she did find her place on campus, and she got used to being away from home while still being part of the family.

“My freshman year was excellent,” she says. “I made a lot of friends, and I found my professors were all nice and caring. Plus, it helped that I could go home for weekends and talk to my family on the phone every day.”

Hayslip says it is important for students to find a place to fit in and feel comfortable on campus so that they can learn how to be their own person while still being part of their family.


Quiet time?

Just as it is important for the children to adjust, parents must get used to the new shape of the family by dealing with the silence in the house that follows the child’s departure.

Hayslip says some couples find they no longer have anything in common once the children are gone. “The empty nest can cause bigger problems to surface if a couple hasn’t tended their marriage while raising their children.”

That was not so for the Joes, who say filling that silence has been bittersweet.

“We missed our children, but we were also glad to have more time together,” Harry says. “It’s a lot like when we were first married, but now we have money, so we’re doing things we weren’t able to do before.”

They’ve traveled more — even just on short weekend jaunts. They’ve taken a class together to brush up on their computer skills, and they intend to take more classes — just for fun.


Independence for all

And that’s what Deanne and state Rep. Joe Driver (’71) say they are looking forward to when their youngest child leaves next fall.

Deanne and state Rep. Joe Driver's daughter Lynsey started her senior year of high school this fall. Their oldest child left last year, so they feel more prepared to watch their youngest go.

“I’ve never been able to go to Austin with Joe when the Legislature was in session because I’ve always had to stay with the kids,” Deanne says. “When the next session starts, I’ll be able to go, and we’re both looking forward to that.”

Joe says they’re not as worried about their youngest child leaving because their oldest left last year, and none of their fears came true.

“We see him about every other week, and we talk to him regularly,” he says. “We know he still needs us.”

That doesn’t mean it was easy.

“When he walked out the door with all his stuff, I just cried and cried,” Deanne says.

But the tears eventually stopped and now she has a better relationship with her son than ever before.

She says she’s looking forward to that with her daughter.

“Right now Lynsey is really fighting for her independence,” Deanne says. “I want her to have it so she can grow up and we can be her friends more than her parents.”


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