The Empty Nest Syndrome

When your children leave home, are you ready?

When my sister’s fifth child was about to leave for university she and her husband of almost 30 years made a plan. They knew that after he left they couldn’t face their once full, noisy and vibrant home. So they packed the car and when he left, they left. It turns out that not only was this a reflection of her wisdom that I have benefited from my entire life, but it had a psychological and practical foundation to it as well. According to The New York Times 2017 article, How To Thrive in an Empty Nest, by making a plan to go on a trip they nailed three of the key components of surviving this major life change; 1. Acknowledge your feelings-they knew they couldn’t face the empty house without throwing a bocce ball through the window-Road Trip! 2. Make a Plan-Road Trip! 3. Plan Some Fun-Road Trip! In addition, the article goes on to suggest; 4. Making a plan to see your child soon-something on the calendar takes the edge off of the permanent feeling of the separation. 5. Reconnecting with old friends who might also be going through the same thing. 6. Making a long-term goal- such as going back to school, changing careers, retiring, traveling somewhere you have always wanted to go. It helps to feel you haven’t been left behind to have these goals in place. You have a life, too. Garages don’t clean themselves after all. And doesn’t that room of his need new carpet? These plans can range in scope from smaller, achievable segments (like seriously cleaning out their room) to larger goals depending on what your life can support and what your mojo needs.

While not everyone has the ability to uproot their lives and bail out for a few weeks when their kids leave, my sister and brother-in-law both have their own businesses so they were able to execute the ultimate self-care and do what they needed to do to enter this new phase of life as Empty Nesters (or EN). Often referred to as a “Syndrome” this threshold is harder for some than for others. Just calling it a “Syndrome” makes me want to get a blood test to make sure my Crazy Town hormones are functioning properly. You know the culprits; Cortisol, Adrenaline, Norepinephrine and a few others I would have to google in order to spell correctly. Ok, I googled Norepinephrine.

According to Psychology Today, “Empty Nest Syndrome refers to the distress and other complicated emotions that parents often experience when their children leave home.” Historically this has often affected women (or the primary caregivers) more than men as they were most often at home with the children, but now couples are frequently facing this together as many are working from home and sharing the parenting workload.

However, this threshold should first be understood before it can be conquered.

Regardless of what the label implies, this isn’t an actual diagnosis but more of an acknowledgement that this is a significant, life-altering transition. The parent or parents lives were usually organized for 18 or so years around this other being. What they ate, where they needed to be, when they went to bed, where their favorite Mimi or Spotty had gone to, what they were learning, and most importantly, what kind of human they were becoming. While many often look at this stage as impending doom, it can also be viewed as a new and exciting opportunity. Naturally there will be some ambivalence around the thought of your adult kids flying the coop. I know I can’t even think about it without getting a bit teary. Although some days it does make me want to jump with joy and into the future with a suitcase and a bottle of wine. Don’t judge. I have teenagers.

As with most issues in life, there will significant cultural, economic and gender differences in how individuals navigate and cope with the adult child leaving home. According to the Sage Journal Study on Parental Gender Differences and Cultural Dynamics children are often the “social conduit” for the parent’s external lives. This resonated with me as, when our children left our lovely, little preschool many years ago most of our people went on to a different elementary school. My husband and I felt a huge shift in our social lives. It wasn’t that we weren’t still friends with the same parents, it was just that they all saw each other so much more frequently being at the same school. So to extrapolate this even further to when the kids leave home, it makes sense that this piece of your external life no longer naturally draws the same energy that it once did.

It also seems that this phase of life can really shine a spotlight on the health of the relationship of parents who are still together. Do you like each other enough to want to hang out more? What do you have in common now that the kids have flown the coop? What do you talk about at dinner if you aren’t bitching about or at the kids? OR, maybe this is a good excuse to rekindle the flame?

But what about single parents after their kids leave home? This can be much harder on the parent as they don’t have someone to directly commiserate with, which is why Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global suggests; connecting with other single empty nesters, finding a new passion and volunteering all as tools to help you thrive during this adjustment. While the bond between each parent and child is unique, the single parent’s bond might be tighter or deeper in different ways varying on their situation. A widow or a widower, for example, might have a different connection with their child as they grieved the loss together. Or, a divorced parent might have grown to rely on the child for companionship.

What does seem like a common thread between most of the studies and support groups is the planning component. Viewing this threshold as an opportunity though will require a bit of advance footwork. Whether it is planning a trip, connecting with others, finally buying yourself a hammock and throwing out the long ago rotted swing set (that in itself could be the metaphor for becoming an EN), it will take proactive measures to make this an adventure rather than a hardship. Ask yourself what you have always wanted to do but couldn’t “because of the kids”. Maybe it is as simple as taking a class in something you are interested in. Or, as basic as learning to live for yourself for a change. Being a parent is an incredibly rewarding and fulfilling experience, but it is also exhausting. They will always be your kids and from what I understand from parents with adult children in their 40’s you never, ever, ever, did I mention ever, stop worrying about them. But the true challenge will be to learn to live for ourselves and even figuring out who that might be aside from the title “Mom” or “Dad”.

So here’s to the next chapter, whatever that may hold. And above all, remember to reach out. You are not alone.

The next Threshold installment will be about when adults lose an aging parent.