Q. The last of my three children will be graduating from high school in June and going away to college in August (even though he could have attended the local junior college for a couple of years). I have been dreading that day since he was born. Whatever will I do with myself when there are no children at home for me to care for?

A. Many women have defined themselves in terms of caring for children. And it isn’t confined to females. Some males wrestle with this perception, as well. It occurs frequently enough that society itself talks about the empty nest syndrome. Caring for children is just one of the roles that many human beings have had the pleasure (or turmoil) of engaging in during a lifetime.

Expectations and perceptions color everything in life. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  1. Is there any possibility your son will experience some hesitancy in leaving home and embracing college? If he senses you will feel loss rather than joy at him gaining maturity, he may do something to sabotage his career path—something that would mean he had to stay home for a couple more years. Would that choice be better for him, or would it just postpone the day when you must get on with the rest of your life in a healthy, productive, rewarding, and functional manner?
  2. Is there a chance you have been living life somewhat vicariously through your children? When parents are living vicariously through their children, the children often sense that, and it can put a huge strain on them. It can result in their subconsciously embracing choices that make their parents happy, whether or not those choices are best for the children. Would you really want this for yours? Parents are responsible for their own happiness, a happiness not predicated on children taking inordinate care of their parents in an attempt to make them happy.
  3. Is there any risk that your son may believe (even subconsciously) that he owesyou for having birthed him, or that he is somehow responsible for doing whatever it takes to prevent you from being sad or lonely? Some young people have made choices that negatively impacted the rest of their lives simply because they felt responsibility for a parent’s feelings. The job of parenting, in my brain’s opinion, is to raise children to adulthood by role-modeling what it means to be functional, happy, confident, and productive, and to help them leave the nest to engage in activities that match their own brain function with as little baggage as possible.
  4. Are you afraid to be alone? Some individuals go from their childhood home directly to their adulthood home and never experience living on their own between moving out and partnering. If that was your experience, maybe this is the time to learn how to live contentedly with yourself. You can share with your son that both of you are learning to do something new. If this wasn’t your experience, you might consider taking in a foster child or caring for the child of friends while they are at work outside of the home.

Childcare is simply one of the many roles that males and females exhibit. I encourage you to let your children go out into the world, unencumbered by your preferences. Continue to enjoy, nurture, and affirm each of them individually—at whatever distance works for them. If childcare truly is your passion, find a way to bless others (beyond your own children) and the world through that passion. This expanded vision may mean obtaining a child development certificate and working in a daycare center. It could mean volunteering at a local school, spending time with selected children who need a bit more assistance and attention than the teacher can provide. It might involve assisting in after-school programs— making a difference in the lives of youngsters who otherwise might be classified as “latch-key kids.”

And if childcare is not your passion (and you are simply afraid of being alone or of learning new skills), then figure out what you would like to do more than anything else in the world (now that day-to-day hands-on parenting of your biological children is no longer required) and find a way to make it happen. That could result in some seriously beneficial role-modeling.

Whatever you choose, be clear about the difference between caretaking and caring. Caretaking involves giving to others in an attempt to feel better about yourself; caring is giving to others from a healthy super-ego position because your cup is so full-to-overflowing you have plenty to share. Avoid caretaking like the plague—and be a caregiver.