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Why Is It so Painful to Be a Mom After Your Kids Leave Home

By Nicole Christina April 10, 2021 Family

Any excitement I had for my son preparing to go 2700 miles away to college has been replaced by an aching, heavy heart. And because it’s such a big transition for both of us, I suggested he take his dog with him – a 14-pound Jack Russell with a big personality.

I don’t regret it, but I will miss that little pup. She’s always been his dog, but her presence in the family is very large. She’s demanding, adorable, spoiled and doted on. Much like my son.

It occurred to me that this grieving heart also feels out of place. So much is going well: My podcast, Zestful Aging, is exploding. I am booking guests that are rock stars in the world of strong, smart, inspiring women – Ashton Applewhite, Jean Kilbourne, Evelyn Tribole, to name a few.

I literally have been doing happy dances when I get confirmation from these amazing women. So I feel both deeply celebratory and grateful – and weak from grief. It’s an odd combination.

Mish-Mash of Bittersweetness

As I often tell my clients, mixed feelings – or ‘profound ambivalence’ in psychotherapy parlance – are the worst and the most difficult to deal with.

We can feel like we’re a little crazy, and our emotions can feel out of control. It’s unsettling and confusing, and feels like being tossed around on a rough ocean. I think we all can relate.

Even as our parents’ health might be failing, or our marriage is strained, we might be excelling in work. The boss is demanding yet our garden looks more lush than ever. You get the idea; life is a mish-mash of bittersweetness.

What to Do?

So what can we do to survive this muddle? I like to focus on the basics. I once had a client whose depression was so severe that breathing felt like too much effort. So, instead we focused on soup.

Before you wonder about my credentials as a psychotherapist, I learned by experience that it was helpful to focus on anything that would bring a modicum of comfort.

The act of making a basic soup was gentle, nurturing and comforting for my client. Something about making it from scratch, just for herself, seasoned to her taste, was deeply satisfying. It helped her gain enough momentum to face the challenges of the day.

Just the Next Hour

Then there’s the necessity of just looking ahead to the next hour. Can I just put one foot in front of the other?

There’s no way to fast track grief – it’s more of a slogging through. It’s not graceful. It’s smeared mascara and a snotty nose. It’s the fetal position and eating peanut butter out of a jar with a spoon because you are hungry and don’t have energy to make yourself a proper meal.

A moment later, the tables turn and you’re thrilled that someone you really admire agreed to be a guest on your show. All of a sudden cutting up vegetables doesn’t seem so onerous.

Can’t Predict

I don’t know what the next couple of months will be like, when I know that every day we are getting closer to his departure date.

I do know that he’ll be fussy about my cooking, yawn dramatically in public without covering his mouth, leave sticky stuff in my car and generally exhibit adolescent obliviousness.

He’ll be provocative and inconsiderate. Some days will be lovely spending time together, and others I will retreat into my meditation room to manage my frustrations.

Many have theorized that’s just how it should be. You yearn for them to stay, but part of you can’t wait for them to leave. It’s nature’s way of making the heartbreak a bit less heart-breaking.

Just Ride It Out

My mantra will be something to the effect of “just ride it out,” and I will remind myself that I’ve been through a broken heart before. That’s the payoff of being “of a certain age.” I know that even when I’m in the thick of it, grief ebbs and flows.

The body simply can’t sustain this level of emotional pain. There will be a reprieve. And I will eventually adjust. And good things will continue to happen in other parts of my life.

And even in Syracuse, the sun eventually peaks through.

Are you experiencing a separation from an adult child who has chosen to move away from home? How are you coping with the loss of separation? Please share your stories in the comments below so we can all learn for the experience.

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The Author

Nicole Christina, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and the host of the acclaimed podcast ZestfulAging (, which is heard in 89 countries around the world. Find out more about Nicole at

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