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How Empty Nester Parents Can Avoid Holiday Headaches

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Your children go off to college, and you go through all the emotions that go along with it. Maybe you are finally getting used to your new way of life while waiting for your own imaginary diploma that says “congratulations, you have now graduated from parenthood—the at home years” to be delivered any day now when suddenly, you look at the calendar and see it is November and start doing the happy dance. Thanksgiving break will be here before you know it, and the extra bonus of Christmas break shortly after. It feels as if you’ve hit the empty nest lottery. THE KIDS WILL BE HOME SOON!

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If you are like me, you start making all sorts of plans, lists and stocking the house with all their favorites. I’ve got my hands full as an empty nester of six daughters (including quadruplets in college) as each of them comes home for the holidays.

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Your children are probably excited to come home too, but their enthusiasm might not be equally matched to ours. They might not exactly be visualizing spending all this quality time together with their parents, but instead, be more excited to see their friends and siblings.

So, whether it is your first year as an empty nester, or you’ve done this a couple of times before and you’ve earned your empty nest title, the question remains:

When is the nest truly empty?

Is it when they move into their first apartment or home outside of college? Or, when they get married?

I saw a meme that said, “A nest is not empty until all their stuff is moved out of the house.” Ha!

If only it were that easy. It’s hard enough to feel all the emotions that come about when the last of your children leaves home, but then you realize you go through it over and over again in different ways.

Just when you think you’ve adapted to your new life (which was hard enough), then comes a break from college, weekend visit, or even a global pandemic where your child is back home learning or working remotely.

Except now, everything has changed. In walks a fully functioning adult that hasn’t had to answer to you on a daily basis and that doesn’t change just because they are back under your roof.

So, now what? My house, my rules, right? Well kind of. I think as parents we need to change and adapt as much as our children have. We have to fight the urge to slide right back into the way things were when they lived at home full time.

Just as you were probably naively thinking about pre-pandemic life, “I can’t wait until life gets back to normal.” The same can be said when your kids return home for the holidays. You can’t wait to have them back at home to what feels like, “normal”, and your parenting style reverts back to their high school years.

So, what is the secret to finding holiday cheer for the entire family when your children return home to the nest?

I’ll share my recipe that I learned with some trial and error before finding holiday empty nest success.

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Many people put the primary focus on what is the perfect gift to give, table to set, and meal to serve.

While that might be part of the holiday environment you want to create, the real “secret sauce” is how you adapt to your empty nest role, communicate, and manage expectations.

Start by making sure you set boundaries and set expectations that go both ways. Having you and your children on the same page will help to avoid a holiday meltdown.

Your children are coming home, not to a hotel, ATM, or restaurant.

Are you going to treat your child as a guest in their own home? Do you want to?

Daily housekeeping, fresh towels, chocolates left on their pillow and nightly turndown service is what you get at a nice hotel. Unless you enjoy doing these acts of service for your children, don’t. Allow them to enjoy your family house as a home and not a hotel.

To chore or not to chore? Yes, I miss the days of our nicely color-coded daily chore chart where each child had an assigned task and had to fight the urge to haul that back out when the kids came home for break. However, I will ask them to help out and take out the trash, help with meal prep, or most of all, clean out some of that stuff from their rooms they no longer want or need.

This isn’t a restaurant. You’ve gotten accustomed to making what you want and for less people. When your kids come home from college, it’s fun to have them feel special by making something you know they’ve been missing. But that doesn’t mean cooking and baking something special every day and meal.

Make sure your motivation is because you want to and not because you feel you have to.

What’s a curfew? Your children have been making their own decisions while not under your roof which include when to turn in and get up for the day. They probably aren’t going to appreciate being told to be home at a certain time when they are out having fun with their high school friends they haven’t seen in months. I get it though; we need to know when to send out a search party or go to bed ourselves because no one wants a tired and cranky parent used to going to bed at 10:30 waiting up until 2 a.m. in charge of Thanksgiving meal prep.

Instead of micro-managing their timeline, try communicating with them that the concern isn't that you don’t trust them to make good decisions, but more about your need to know when you should worry if they aren’t home, or to not accidentally lock them out of the house. If you’ve laid out boundaries and expectations of how you will handle when they come and go, no one should have to lose any sleep over it.

What do all of these have in common? Each well-meaning act of love for excitement to have them home can easily go too far overboard and risk you being too tired and burnt out to even enjoy the most important thing - time with them. It also sets you up to feel resentful of those around you when you work so hard to do for others and they don’t seem to notice.

Wait? Not even one thank you? Yes, it’s easy for us parents (especially us moms) to snap back into putting everyone else before ourselves.

Let’s not throw everything we’ve been working on since we entered the empty nest out the window when the holidays come around. It’s time for ALL of us to be thankful for the times we do get to be together.

Here’s to everyone (that means you too) in your family enjoying a merry and bright holiday season ahead!

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