I was chatting with a family friend whose youngest child is set to head off to the college of his choice, and amid all the pride and delight in her voice, I sensed a distinct note of dread with an undertone of “what now?”
But is empty-nest syndrome — that roller-coaster bundle of sadness, loneliness and other emotions that parents may feel when their offspring finally leave home — really as difficult a life change as it’s cracked up to be?
Not necessarily, says psychologist Karen Fingerman, a professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. “There is no data showing ‘Oh, no, people go to pieces when the kids leave home,’ ” she says, noting that research has demonstrated that an empty nest is associated with a range of benefits for the whole family, including improved marital relations, reduced conflict between parents and children, and enhanced well-being. “Even good transitions can present challenges, but what we know is that most people get through this adjustment very well and even end up thriving.”
That’s not to say that shipping your kid off to college isn’t hard, especially when many moms and dads are so focused on their broods.
“You’re never as necessary and as relevant in life as you are when you’re raising a child, so when that child no longer needs you, you automatically feel less necessary and less relevant,” says Brad Sachs, a family psychologist in Columbia. “There’s a tremendous shift in self-worth and value that entails feelings of loss and sorrow as you realize that time is marching on and you’re being nudged closer towards mortality, that this is the next phase in your life.”
While much has been made of mothers’ empty-nest struggles, Sachs says that fathers aren’t immune, although he has found that the sexes typically have different experiences when their offspring depart: “Mothers tend to have a more preliminary grief or sense of loss as the crossroads is approached, because they tend to have been more emotionally involved and connected with their children than fathers have been,” he says. “It tends to hit fathers more profoundly after the actual departure has been embarked upon, because that’s when they experience this regret and remorse about all the ways in which they weren’t involved or weren’t involved enough, and realize that they can’t turn back the clock.”
In general, empty-nest syndrome is a process with three distinct stages: grief, relief, then joy, says social psychologist Carin Rubenstein, author of “Beyond the Mommy Years: How to Live Happily Ever After . . . After the Kids Leave Home.” After surveying nearly 1,000 women, she found that while most mothers — especially those who did not work outside the home — were sad and lonely in their first few childless days and weeks, it didn’t take long for them to rediscover the benefits and opportunities of life with no kids in the house. Imagine not having to make family dinner every night, no more early-morning school drop-offs and no more weekends of running from one sports event to another.
“The mourning — not necessarily for your children but for your role as a parent — is what everybody focuses on,” Rubenstein says. “But we’re talking about grief for a couple of weeks or months, and then it’s over.” She notes that only about one in 10 women can’t seem to get past this difficult period. “Very quickly, there’s the relief that you’re not fighting [with your child] anymore, that you’re not responsible for carpool or on constant alert, and finally most women zip through that to joy and the realization that you now have a whole third or so of your own life left to live.”
So, yes, you may miss your son or daughter, but remember that you can call, text, Skype or otherwise easily contact them, Rubenstein says. She stresses that those who view the freedom associated with an empty nest as an opportunity to reclaim or rediscover parts of themselves that had been put aside to be a good mom or dad — and who create a new life for themselves outside parenthood — usually thrive. That might include revitalizing your marriage and other relationships, obtaining a different or better job or reentering the workforce, pursuing new hobbies or passions, getting into shape, moving or downsizing, and — last but not least — developing new, more mature relationships with your children, even if it takes a few years, she says.
If you are facing your last summer with a child at home, Brad Sachs, the author of “Emptying the Nest: Launching Your Young Adult Toward Success and Self-Reliance,” offers some tips for easing the transition and turning it into a positive development for you and your kids:
1 Prepare yourself to experience a range of sometimes contradictory emotions, from sorrow to relief, from loss to exhilaration. The process of having children leave home is a bittersweet experience that spans the emotional spectrum for both generations.
2 Be respectful of and patient with your young adult’s mixed feelings: Children who are preparing to depart manage their emotions in a variety of ways, from acting as though they’ve already left to acting as though they’re never going to leave. They are as entitled to their own unique matrix of feelings as you are.
3 Speak with your son or daughter about the kind of contact that you would like to have so that you can continue to convey love and care while acknowledging the necessary separation and differentiation.
4 If you are married, talk to your spouse about how the two of you would like to connect or reconnect now that your relationship is no longer balanced completely on the fulcrum of child-rearing.
5 Ask yourself what promises you made to yourself about what you’d do with your life way back when, before children came along — and think about how to make good on them now.
And no matter how bereft you feel in those first few days or weeks, or at odd moments in the grocery store when you pass by your son or daughter’s favorite snack food that you no longer need to stock up on, take comfort in the knowledge that this change is what you’ve been working so long and so hard for. As Sachs says: “In our culture, we tend to want to keep our offspring nesting, but this is actually how successful parenting is defined — by children’s ability to become autonomous and self-reliant, and to separate.”