Empty Nest Doesn’t Have to Mean Emptiness

4 ways to ease the transition when your kids have flown the coop

"Dance around naked with a rose in my teeth." That's the response I always gave my daughters when they asked what I would do for a night without them. But those conversations occurred when I was dropping them off at sleepovers or camp. I did not say it when both girls left for the summer this year. I did not say it when my oldest started college this fall. Somehow facing the prospect of an empty nest doesn't seem as funny anymore.

The fact that it's called a "syndrome" expresses the permeating feelings of loss many parents experience when faced with an "empty nest." That we've done our jobs well — raised children who are prepared to leave home and fly confidently into their future — doesn't make it any easier. Because our identity has been so aligned with our role as Mom or Dad, parents often experience a sense of floundering when children leave home.

But an empty nest also comes with its own joys. As with most transitions in life, it's a time when we're most open to growth and personal discovery. It's helpful to know what awaits us as we prepare for this part of our journey.

Let in the loss: Acknowledging your feelings is the first step to acceptance

"When kids leave, parents are challenged to restructure their lives and find new identities," says Emily Kean, Ph.D., a clinical child psychologist in Louisville, Colo. "One of the biggest challenges I see for parents is being able to truly acknowledge and mourn the loss and change."

The switch from daily, hands-on parenting to less — and less direct — contact with their children can be unsettling. "I had about a week of 'She's never coming home' feelings that I can only describe as discomfort," says Gaiam Life reader Kristen Leigh. "It wasn't really sad, but a little scary, maybe."

Reader Brandy Vadney found the transition devastating: "When my husband and I drove our son to college two hours away, I cried the whole way there and the whole way home." And Sarah Knoll, a single mom in Kansas City, Mo., found that daily tasks could trigger sadness. "The first time I went grocery shopping I broke down when I got home," she says. "I realized I didn't know how to shop for groceries without my son around."

As with any transition, the key is to recognize your feelings, even the emotions that are difficult to acknowledge. "You need to be able to grieve that role you've had as a parent," says Natalie Caine, founder of Empty Nest Support Services. "You want your parenting voice to get some time to speak, and then give voice to the other part of you that's relieved to be over the noise and the texting and the crazy schedules."

Becoming an empty-nest parent inevitably revives feelings from previous experiences of loss, separation and change, says Dr. Kean. "Moving forward often requires looking back and finding new understandings and resolutions of the past."

And don't be surprised when other losses or regrets emerge, adds Caine. "When those thoughts come up, let them come out of you. Then say to them, 'Thank you for sharing; I have to go now.'"

Redefine yourself: Getting comfortable with your new role as a parent

Once you've allowed yourself to feel the loss and sadness, the next thought many parents have is, "Who am I now?" While it's easy to polarize your role and feel unnecessary, the reality is that parents will always be parents, Dr. Kean reminds us.

So how do you begin redefining yourself?

"I had to start defining myself by just myself and no longer as 'Jasmine's mom,'" says Leigh, who felt for years that her whole reason for being was to be a parent. "Of course, I'm still that, but that's no longer my daily job description."

Check in with yourself, suggests Caine. "Begin that dialog: 'Who am I creatively? Spiritually? With family? With finances?' You're getting to know yourself again."

"Many new empty nesters find they have more time for pursuing leisure activities and hobbies, or moving forward with their careers," says Christine Proulx, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Missouri. "They have the opportunity to 'own' that solo time and use it on things that maybe had to be put on hold during the more active child-rearing years."

For Leigh, that meant reinvention; she felt as though she needed to plan a new project to fill her time. That "project" turned out to be running her own graphic design business. "In addition, I became a certified yoga teacher last year," she says. "So between producing design work and leading my yoga students, I have plenty of fun, creative and productive things to focus on."

Caine says the fun is finding new parts of yourself that you never knew were there — these dormant selves that you just didn't have the time or energy to bring up. "Mine was the photographer, the writer, the solo traveler," she says. "It's empowering, it's creative and it's invigorating."

Strengthen the bonds: It's never too early to build your fan club

One of the challenges for parents is being emotionally available as their children discover their new identities as autonomous beings, while at the same time dealing with their own complicated feelings. "Some parents may want to avoid the anxiety by becoming so busy they barely have time to notice their child being gone," Dr. Kean says. "Some may feel resentful of their child's continued reliance in times of stress." It's important that parents have their own support system even as they are serving as their child's support system.

"I realized I had cocooned myself from the rest of the world," says Leigh. "I basically did nothing that didn't involve church, volleyball games, school plays or homework. So I started making new friends and building those relationships so I still have people to hang out with, even when my daughter isn't here."

If you're married, this is the time to turn attention to your partner that may have been back-burnered during the child-rearing years. "Empty nesters need to take stock of their relationship now that the children are gone," according to Dr. Charles D. Schmitz and Dr. Elizabeth A. Schmitz, authors of Building a Love that Lasts: The Seven Surprising Secrets of Successful Marriage. The sooner, the better, research seems to indicate. In fact, a 2008 study by the Association for Psychological Science reveals that marital satisfaction for women whose children had left home was greater than that of women who still had children at home.

As a single parent, Knoll said her son's going away to college meant her whole world had changed. So this summer she moved in with a roommate, for both emotional and financial reasons. "I often think my life would be much different if I still lived in our house," Knoll says. "I would still be working two jobs to make the mortgage, but I would always come home to an empty house. Now, even though I miss my son and think of him a lot, I can go out more with friends, work out at the gym and pursue my own interests."

Celebrate the joys: Replacing the "syndrome" with the positive spin

That this time of life is labeled a syndrome gives it a negative connotation. "I would argue that the empty nest syndrome really doesn't exist as a syndrome per se," says Dr. Proulx. "There are so many joys worth celebrating in this part of life, and my research suggests that watching with pride as the child you've worked so hard to raise matures into an adult is near the top of the list."

Caine says she's not met one person who doesn't hate the term empty nest. "It sounds so dark and old," she says. "But there's this amazing freedom! I no longer have a cell phone attached to my hip. I love the peace that's in my home now."

Gaiam Life reader Debbie Donovan says she discovered peace through this process, and that one is not a lonely number since her daughters went to college. "My life was work and my girls, and I was very happy with that arrangement," she says. "I would now say 'It's all about me,' because it was all about them for so many years. I'm very happy alone."

Vadney, author of the blog Life Ain't Nuthin But a Good Groove, is halfway to an empty nest and eagerly awaits it. "I look forward to discovering who I am without the labels 'wife' and 'mom,'" says Vadney, whose daughter is a high school senior. Leigh, whose daughter left for school three months ago, says, "Love the freedom. Love the time alone. Love hearing about something my daughter learned that excites her. And love that she's settling in, making friends and getting the hang of being on her own."

Many parents seem to enjoy the shift, says Dr. Proulx, particularly the decrease in daily parenting demands. "I think the increased freedom is worth celebrating, as is the possibility to share new things with one's children," she says, using education, work and travel as examples. Giving your grown children the freedom to explore their newfound autonomy, says Dr. Kean, while creating a redefined nest to which they can comfortably return gives them — and you — a secure letting go. "The potential for growth is always there for all of us," she says. "The challenge is to take these transitions as an opportunity."

Donovan sums it up perfectly: "My girls both have college degrees, do not live at home and pay their own bills," she says. "Now I call that success!"
 

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