If a parent has done his or her job correctly, their child usually is independent and competent enough to travel alone in the world after they turn 21, or even earlier. My 22-year-old summa cum laude college graduate, uber-responsible daughter is currently on a lengthy trip backpacking around Asia. Her 54-year-old mom is a mess.

            I say this partly in jest.  I am abundantly proud of my daughter. She is working to make the world a better place, and will be working for a nonprofit in the fall to help underprivileged children. I am grateful we have the means to allow her to travel to distant lands.

            My daughter has the travel bug and is an empathetic student of the world. She has done service trips in South America, in the mountain village on a Pacific Island and the Caribbean rainforest. She did a semester-long internship in South Africa and studied in Greece. Many of her former classmates are spending the next year traveling. High school graduates frequently take gap years traveling the globe nowadays. My son went to boarding school several states away for most of his high school education. My daughter went to college in a faraway city, and I knew there would be a good chance that city would be the place where she would settle after she graduated.  So, why the worry now?

            No matter how one prepares for the empty nest, one’s children are likely to provoke protective instincts. Leaving them at college is frequently a first step of physical separation. I cried as I walked away from my daughter on that idyllic mid-western campus 500 miles from home. I held an event for other moms and I to assemble care-packages for our then-college freshmen. We supported each other as our apron strings were cut from our children.

            We all hope we have provided sufficient life skills for our children before they go off alone into the world. Both of my children know how to cook, do their own laundry and use public transportation. Aviva Goldfarb of Chevy Chase, however, did a more thorough prep before her two children left for college away from home.

            Goldfarb outlines her plan: “Here’s how we have prepared and are preparing — Make them clean out their rooms over the summer, so we can donate and throw away bags of clutter from years of accumulation and so their rooms wouldn’t look so messy, could be used for guests when necessary and so they could come home to a less cluttered room. Make sure they have necessary skills like laundry, cooking, booking medical appointments, paying bills, etcetera, to help ease their transition to independence. Plan trips to visit them and family trips over winter breaks so we could look forward to time together. Updated the house to be more adult-oriented both for us and our friends and so they would look forward to coming home and hanging out in our renovated basement, new bar, patio and firepit with us and their friends.” Clearly, this organized mom and author of The Six O’Clock Scramble cookbook series,[1] is an exemplary, thoughtful planner.

            *     *     *

            I kept a stiff upper lip at the airport as I bid my daughter a bon voyage, as she began a trip that would take her 10,000 miles from home. I prayed the entire drive home. It would take two days of travel for me to reach my daughter in an emergency. I admit that I ran through emergency scenarios in my mind about who I would call in the region if something were to go wrong.

            In my mind, my daughter looked like a small, vulnerable girl, dwarfed by her large backpack. But I know she is responsible, travel-savvy and will be careful. She repeatedly has demonstrated this.

            I wish I had never seen the movie, “Taken,” in which Liam Neeson’s character saves his daughter from being sold into sexual slavery after she was abducted in France. I can imagine my own parade of horribles when this mama bear gets started. There was the University of Virginia student who was jailed in North Korea for a minor transgression and died shortly after his release eighteen months later. And I work hard to banish from my mind the stories my daughter told me—after safely returning from other stays abroad—about how her co-traveler was robbed at knifepoint in Capetown, and another was mugged in Johannesburg. Or how she decided on a whim to bungee jump off a tower in Soweto, which was one of the scariest experiences of her life. Or how she was taken to the hospital in Bolivia with a possible concussion. Or the shady place she had to stop during an emergency in India.

            My daughter also shares stories of kindnesses she experiences in her travels. She recently arrived in Vietnam and forgot to change money into local currency. The restaurant proprietor let her and her companion dine for free with the promise that they would return to pay later (which, of course, she did). And when she lived in Bolivia with a host family, they treated her as a family member, including her in family meals and celebrations. They remain friends today.

            I also realize that the education she is absorbing about other cultures and local history was not obtainable via formal means. She describes some of this in her blog that I happily devour immediately upon receipt in my email inbox. Her last blog expressed great sadness when she learned of and visited the Cambodian “Killing Fields.” The Khmer Rouge’s genocide in the 1970s of more than two million people is not mentioned in history classes here.

            The world seems to be a scarier place, with terrorism taking new, insidious forms. At the same time, technology affords us improved communication, even across oceans. And young people generally seem more savvy about dangers in the world, though I try to forget while she is away about studies claiming that the decision-making portions of young people’s brains mature much later than most believe. Why does our society arbitrarily designate 21 as the “age of maturity” if science demonstrates that maturity comes later in one’s twenties, or even early 30s for males?

            I backpacked around Europe when in college, and around Asia after law school. Nothing terrible happened on those trips, but I took risks and sometimes I was simply lucky. Had my path crossed with a person with bad intentions, my trip would have taken a different course. Kindly strangers helped me out when lost in the wee hours of the morning in China without the ability to speak the local language and having no reservation for accommodations. I stayed in a couple of dicey places while traveling and stupidly accepted a couple of rides from some people I did not know. I remember feeling youthful invincibility.

            We had no cell phones then. We would stop at American Express offices here and there to send and receive snail mail and sometimes travel funds. My parents did not really know my itinerary, since it frequently changed. When I reflect on some of the wild adventures I took then, like partying on the Pamplona streets all night during the running of the bulls because we had nowhere to stay, or a trek in the Golden Triangle of northern Thailand where opium and leeches were plentiful, I think, “But for the grace of God go I,” alternating with, “What the hell were my parents thinking to let me do that?”

            I am glad, of course, that my parents let me travel. I firmly believe travel is an unparalleled education in myriad ways.  It cultivated gratitude and empathy in my young mind. It opened my consciousness to cultural differences and offerings. Xenophobia never entered my psyche. Travel made me a better person. I am so grateful that my children have opportunities to travel as well. Mark Twain once said, “Travel is fatal to narrow-mindedness.”  I completely agree.

            I comfort myself by talking to other moms whose children are traveling far from home for extended periods of time. And Facebook can provide me solace, as I see my friends’ college-aged kids doing all kinds of exciting things abroad, like bungee jumping in Capetown, trekking in Indonesia and making beautiful videos of their adventures in distant lands.

            Potomac resident, David Kane, has one son in his last year at The U.S. Naval Academy and another starting at The Citadel this fall. His oldest son, Andrew, a graduate of Georgetown Prep, recently was one of the few Midshipmen appointed to be a Company Commander. Andrew is headed towards an officer career that will involve risk, danger, and little control over where he will be assigned, at least initially. “I am so proud that Andrew chose to serve our country, but even more astounded by this young man’s decision knowing he’s part of a generation of peers challenging authority and politics more than many years in the past since the 1960s,” Kane says. “To add to his patriotic commitment, Andrew is working toward being selected to serve as a United States Marine.  While it is hard when he is on a ship somewhere and we do not have the luxury of communicating with him at will, we know he is doing something he loves and believes in, is working to keep our country safe and, most importantly, following his dreams.”

            “Meanwhile, his younger brother Michael just graduated from St. John’s College High School after four years as a cadet in the JROTC program there,” Kane continues. “Michael is all Army and his older brother is all Navy. This dynamic will make for great sibling rivalry during the annual Army-Navy football game. I guess we will sit in the end zone, so we can support both sides!”

            Suzie Egan, of Chevy Chase, shared her realization that her daughter Shannon truly was an independent adult when she moved to Japan to teach in a school there. She was relieved that her daughter accepted the job in Japan instead of one she was considering in Kuwait. Egan worried about not being able to be in touch with her daughter because of the 13-hour time difference between them. It turned out that when Shannon was getting home from work, Egan was getting up and readying for work, so that provided an ideal window for their FaceTime sessions.  

            “Shannon also kept a blog for the first month or so, so we all got to enjoy her adventures and perspectives on a culture very different from ours,” Egan notes. “But the most difficult time was about a month after she left when my uncle, with whom we were very close, passed away suddenly.  Shannon was devastated, and so sad to not be able to grieve with the family. It was then that we felt she was half a world away. It was really, really hard, particularly for her because we all had each other and she was alone without anyone who understood how special this person was to her. Her blog was heartbreaking that week. I really wished I could fly there to be with her.”

            Holidays away from our children also can be hard. “Thanksgiving was our first holiday without Shannon in 22 years,” Egan remembers. “But we flew her home at Christmas and were able to spend three weeks with her. Sending her back, we knew she was happy, healthy and having the adventure of her life.” Egan admits, however, that the first time Shannon left after returning for a holiday was harder than the initial separation. “Knowing what life was like without her in our household made her leaving harder for me…. I guess you don’t know what you don’t know until you do.”

            When our children travel abroad, most of us get to witness a huge growth in maturity and independence. My children look older every time I see them. “This period was the time Shannon really grew up,” Egan believes. “She was so far away and had to make all of her own decisions. She learned to travel by herself. She realized that if she wanted to do something, she couldn’t wait for someone else to want to do it; she had to blaze her own trail. And she did.”

            As we become empty nesters, many of us experience growing periods in our own lives as well. When both of my children were away at school, I returned to practicing law after a 15-year hiatus. Many of my friends are re-entering the workplace, often in new careers. When her children left home, former lawyer Anne Christman became a development professional at Bethesda’s Barker Foundation, Maryland’s largest adoption agency. Other empty-nester moms I know started counseling practices and yoga/exercise studios, became real estate agents or began teaching.

            Goldfarb has many changes going on as her children move out, including selling her business and “taking a month off so I can recharge my batteries, rediscover my passion and focus on what is next for me professionally. I’m making this time really fun and enriching for myself to help ease the transition,” Goldfarb says. She and her husband are focusing on their marital relationship and “making plans, talking about lifestyle and future together, and working on our relationship so we can more easily transition into new phase of life.

            When my daughter is abroad, she and I principally communicate via WhatsApp, a free app that allows us to speak on the phone, and via FaceTime on our iPhones. I am thankful that she keeps me informed of her itinerary, and posts and calls often. When she is away for extended periods, she sometimes gets an inexpensive SIM card in the country in which she is staying, which provides a way for her to make calls while abroad. While it is not always available, Wi-Fi in so many parts of the world is a beautiful thing. My daughter was able to call last night and tell me about the lovely meal she shared in a nice outdoor restaurant in Hanoi… and about the rat that relieved itself on their table as their meal concluded.

            So when I start to freak out about my daughter browsing alone in a crowded Kuala Lumpur market, trekking in Chiang Mai, or walking along a Vietnamese beach at sunset, I focus on the light her travel experiences will bring to her life. I try not to check my phone or social media incessantly for possible updates from my daughter. I stay productive and practice self-care. I pray. I send her good energy. And I selfishly hope she will not decide to live abroad — well, at least that she chooses to live closer when and if I am lucky enough to have grandchildren.

[1]    The Six O’Clock Scramble: Quick, Healthy, and Delicious Dinner Recipes for Busy Families (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2006); SOS! The Six O’Clock Scramble to the Rescue: Earth-Friendly, Kid-Pleasing Dinners for Busy Families (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010); The Six O’Clock Scramble Meal Planner: A Year of Quick, Delicious Meals to Help You Prevent and Manage Diabetes (American Diabetes Association, 2016)


  • Maria Leonard Olsen

    Maria Leonard Olsen is a Washington, D.C.-based attorney and author of “50 After 50: Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life” (Rowman & Littlefield, June 2018).

    Maria Leonard Olsen graduated from Boston College and the University of Virginia School of Law. She is an attorney, radio talk show host of the Washington, D.C. show “Inside Out,” writing and women's empowerment retreat instructor, editor, and public speaker on diversity issues and living a life authentic to one's values. Her work has been published by The Washington Post, Washingtonian Magazine, Bethesda Magazine, among others. She also served in the Clinton Justice Department prior to having children, and recently returned to practicing law now that she is an empty-nester. Olsen is the author of four books, including the children’s books Mommy, Why's Your Skin So Brown? and Healing for Hallie, and the non-fiction titles Not the Cleaver Family--The New Normal in Modern American Families and her newest book, 50 After 50: Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life.