Connor Miller, who graduated from LSU and now works in Baton Rouge, pays a visit to his mom Connie and their three dogs. Photos by Jordan Hefler.

Navigating the empty nest: Parents find renewed passions as kids head off to college

In today’s world, there seems to be a pill for every common ailment except empty-nest syndrome, which—like the flu—usually comes around in the fall when the kids fly the coop and become college students. The dynamics of family life are altered, making this transition just as potentially uncomfortable for the parents left behind as it is for the younger generation.

But it is possible to not only successfully cope with this life change but also to thrive in a new season, say local parents who have been there and done that.

“We are blessed to have two children who went to college,” says Connie Miller, who along with her husband Robert raised 25-year-old Connor, an LSU grad now working in Baton Rouge, and 19-year-old Kirby, a sophomore at the University of Alabama. “As parents, we can only feel happy for them that we gave them the groundwork to fly out of the nest with pride and confidence, knowing the good Lord is their soul protector and guide now. We pray for their health, happiness and future and that they know they will always have our continual love and support.”

Denise Schroeder has seen the chaos level in her house gradually diminish as her own four children have each graduated and moved out. This fall, she and her husband Eric will move their youngest son, 18-year-old Ben, to Lafayette to attend the University of Louisiana. Ben’s three sisters are already out and about: Camille, 25, is currently living in London, and 23-year-old Marit lives in New York City, while 20-year-old Caroline just spent the summer studying abroad but returns to LSU this fall.

Denise Schroeder and youngest child Ben

“I hate to say this because it sounds like we didn’t enjoy being parents, but way back when four kids were going in 16 directions every weekend, my husband started counting down,” Denise says with a laugh. “He would tell anyone who would listen to him, ‘Fourteen years before Ben goes off and we can [fill-in-the-blank].’ That blank usually was some sort of travel plans but also included silly and seemingly trivial things that seem so decadent and luxurious when you have all these kids running around—having clean floors, being able to keep snack foods and drinks without having them mysteriously disappear, waking up to no dirty dishes in the sink, or just sitting around doing absolutely nothing on the weekend.”

Denise says she’ll miss her “sweet drama-free child,” Ben, this fall, along with the tagalongs that come with the territory of teenage children. “We live very close to St. Joseph’s and Catholic, so for more than 10 years now, we have had kids dropping by after school or getting ready for dances,” she says. “I’ll miss all that activity.”

But while the energy of young people may be missing from the Schroeder household this year, Denise did recently decide to adopt a new pet that promises to occupy much of her attention. “Our blind and diabetic dog Lucy died in September, and Marit took her dog up to New York with her,” Denise explains. “The house just seemed a bit sad without a dog. And Marit kept tagging me on pictures of shelter dogs. Dogs love you so much more than teenagers do!”

It also helps that many of Denise’s friends are also entering the empty-nest phase at the same time. “We have big plans to have fun,” she says. “One of my best friends just moved back to Baton Rouge after more than 30 years away, and it’s been so much fun. We do Pure Barre and just hang out like we are 19 again.”

Licensed social worker Lois Dean recommends that parents who will send their own children off to college this season celebrate a newfound emphasis on their own togetherness. “Typically, couples can renew their connection and remember what they treasure about each other, so their focus can once again be on their relationship,” Dean says. “My best advice is to anticipate this, prepare for it and, most important, have a continuous, open line of communication about this process. People live so much longer than ever before that it requires creativity and courage to keep a marriage alive and growing long term. Keep the focus on growing and becoming better.”

That growth can begin with simple acts that can spark enjoyment at any age, as Denise Schroeder attests. “I walk my dog around the lakes every morning, usually with my husband, and sometimes meet girlfriends for lunch,” says Denise. “I still spend a good bit of time cooking and baking. Someone always drops by. Friends of children who have moved away will even call in a specific meal request. It sounds like I’m doing a whole bunch of nothing, but I swear the day is full and I’m worn out at the end.”