Back To School Advice From A Former Empty Nester

I found myself alone for the first time in 26 years. My oldest daughter bought a home of her own. My middle daughter moved to Columbus. The “baby” of the family found time to STUDY abroad in between skydiving and petting kangaroos down under in Australia and our international student who braved living in our home for four years, was off to a university in Switzerland—oh and our beloved 14 year old Corgi died. I was totally alone.

Since I am considered by many as an uber nurturer who delights in feeding anyone with a pulse, people were concerned. At first it was difficult to adjust to finding the remote right where I left it, not having to write “Property of MOM” on everything from facial wash to dark chocolate acai berries and having to find another way to exercise besides climbing “mount laundry”.

I tried to focus on the positives of my “new normal”. I swore I would not become a woman who ate Lucky Charms for dinner during a Netflix binge watching session surrounded by double-digit cats. I was beginning to enjoy the foreign feeling of taking the time to nurture the one person that I always made an option instead of a priority—ME—when everything changed. My “empty nester” status was revoked after roughly five weeks, two days, 16 hours and some odd minutes.

Mary Helen Darah Foreign Exchange
Welcoming two students from China into my home has been part of the fun of filling my home again.

Middle daughter accepted a teaching job and is under my roof until she gets settled, the 21 year-old returned from Australia and I was asked to host two students from China (ages 14 and 16)—oh and we got a new puppy. As I embark on this new adventure of “starting over” with a full house and teens in high school—sans Prozac—I thought of what advice I would share as a 50 year-old Mom at the start of the academic year.

A few tidbits of wisdom from a “seasoned” mom:

Find an Anal Retentive Mom ASAP
You know who to look for; the perfectly dressed, manicured, organized person that continually shares cute ideas and inspirations she found on Pinterest—and actually has tried a few. She will be your “go-to” person for important school dates and information and will provide a crispy clean copy of a needed permission slip when you find your kid’s crumpled in the bottom of their book bag.

Say “NO” to the Latest and Greatest
While school supply shopping, we came upon a row of items to decorate lockers including a chandelier. NO your child does NOT require items to decorate their locker as a formal dining room. Trust me, you do not want to raise expectations. When your child adjusts easily to sharing a bathroom, wearing “shower shoes” to avoid fungal infections and other challenges of future dorm life, you’ll thank me.

Let Them Do It Themselves
No matter how tempting, let your child complete school projects on their own. When you see the wooden board with drilled holes filled with synchronized lights depicting the constellation “Andromeda” made by the youth whose father HAPPENS to be an engineer—let it go. The neon yellow, spray painted orb hanging from a coat hanger with stars made of glitter glue is far more impressive because it was created independently.

Encourage Physical Activity
My parent’s philosophy of “wear ‘em out” is timeless. Encourage your kids to get involved and participate in a sport or club recreationally or at their school. I realize that the sport’s medical forms from the past were single page documents designed to confirm students were able to fog a mirror. The concussion-conscious, 16-page form of today (where you will need to recall your family’s health history going back three generations), endless carpooling and having to sit countless hours on aluminum seats is worth the effort.

In addition to the numerous health benefits acquired by a moving youngster, there are many life lessons attained from being part of a team. However, I would refrain from using the old, “There is no ‘I’ in “TEAM” saying. My daughter quickly responded, “But if you scramble things around there’s a “ME”.

Easy Come Easy Go
Realize that the first month of school will cause your Visa to tremble and your wallet to empty. There will be times when you feel as if you have to take out a second mortgage or sell off a body part to pay for the required TI84 calculator. The gas money alone from making numerous trips on your massive treasure hunt for needed school supplies is downright staggering. “TAB” (Take A Breath) as my daughters would say. You will eventually find the 8.5 x 11 hardcover sketch pad in the sea of 9 x 11 soft ones.

Keep Calm and Parent On
P.J Rourke once said, “Everyone knows how to raise children, except the people who have them.” Remember to keep your sense of humor. Keep in mind that even the parents who arrive on snack day with a tray of healthy goodies resembling the marine life that is being studied in science class have the same fears and doubts in their parenting capabilities as you who arrived with a box of Pop Tarts. Above all, remember that one day you could find yourself in a big empty house as an “empty nester”. Enjoy every messy, complicated and chaotic moment.

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