They say it takes 21 days to establish a new routine or habit. Typically, this applies to reducing sugar intake, biting nails or starting a new exercise routine. What about doing something for 19 years? Has anyone ever discussed how difficult it is to stop doing something after regularly doing it for almost 20 years? Hence the realities of parenthood as children grow older. I’m on the cusp of an empty nest and to be honest, I’m not dealing with it very well.

There was a time in my life, not so long ago, when I bought underwear and sneakers for my kids. Back to school shopping was an event followed by Chick-fil-A. As a family, we’d sit at the dinner table where conversations escalated to crying fits or uncontrollable laughter as we’d discuss the many ways to navigate life. No longer do I hear, “What’s for dinner tonight?” or “Mom, have you seen ______?” At times, I can almost hear phantom laughter coming from my college daughter’s vacant room.

For 19 years I planned elaborate birthdays, mini day trips, vacations and Halloween costumes. I ensured everyone was up to date on teeth cleaning, vaccines and homework.

I sat through countless hours of baseball, basketball and tennis matches with snacks at the ready. I shuffled kids to and fro, hosted dozens of sleepovers and baked/prepared goods for classroom parties and team dinners.

No one told me it would be this difficult to step away from the job I’ve been doing for 20 years. On one hand, I’ve gradually separated myself, providing space for growth and independence. On the other hand, I’ve been ousted. Advice and reminders are met with rolling eyes, and dinner is sometimes eaten while running to practices and/or outings with friends. And the absolute worst? Not a soul asks me to make their once favorite meals. This Italian mama is slowly dying inside.

Every parent of adult children tells me “they will come back.” But the truth is, nothing will ever be what it was. I suppose I’m sort of mourning still. Even with a job to keep my mind active and other chapters opening in my life, I still stop at least once a day and reflect on the overused cliché, “Where the Fu*% did the time go?” I should have known this was coming considering I did almost the same thing to my own mother.

On Mother’s Day, 26 years ago, my husband and I packed up a U-Haul and left New Jersey for Laramie, Wyoming. It might as well have been the moon. The torrential rain that day mirrored the tears that flooded my mom’s face. It was the longest, strongest hug we ever shared as she sent her only daughter out into the world. I’m certain she felt as I do at times nowadays. Empty. Gutted.

It’s been nine years since I lost my mom to cancer. I spent over 20 years with the gentle guilt of my mother whispering in my ear, longing for me to come back home. For so long I begrudged her for this, but now I understand her hurt more than ever. If I could speak with her now… Dear Mom, I’m sorry I left you on your day, but I’m not sorry for every opportunity and adventure that came my way because of it. I was meant to be where I am. Thank you.

With this as a reminder, I work hard on keeping my feelings on the sunny side to support my little birds as they practice their wings for flight. It’s time to put the big girl pants on and accept transitions and change as another part of life. While I completely understand this, it doesn’t make it any easier.