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Preparing for and Navigating the Empty Nest
Submitted by the USPS Employee Assistance Program
Anyone who ever has been a parent knows how hectic life can be while raising a child. Few, if any, parents have not dreamed of the day when their precious, young toddler would grow up and become self-supporting. But, sooner or later it happens. That child you were so anxious to help pack actually leaves. The house is finally quiet and there is much less to do: less laundry, less cleaning, less transporting and perhaps fewer bills. What then?
Empty-nest syndrome generally is considered to be the state of independence a parent experiences when their final offspring has left for college or a permanent job. While the immediate reaction may be relief, it often is followed by a period of reorganization and redefinition of one’s role in life. Along with these changes can come unexpected and strong emotional responses.
As parents, we frequently organize our schedules around our children’s activities. As the children grow, so do the needs and demands. In late adolescence, there frequently is a period of relief that accompanies the arrival of the dreaded driver’s license. “Where are they?” becomes the co-pilot of “What are they doing?” We haven’t realized it yet, but this is the beginning of the early stages of the empty nest (or as our teenagers see it, the beginning of new beginnings). Their quest for independence (and our quest for whatever we think we want next) has begun. Now that date is here. The one goal on which every parent and child has unconsciously agreed—independence—finally has arrived. So, why doesn’t it feel so great?
The changing of a family constellation necessitated by a developmental milestone, such as going to college or leaving for a job, often is more daunting than ever anticipated. Younger siblings adapt to new roles, usually involving more responsibility. Parents are faced with the realization the family dynamic has changed. When the last child leaves, parents now have to face each other in a way that hasn’t existed since the first child showed up. Things may have changed since that time, forcing partners to re-establish and frequently redefine their roles and relationship with each other. Divorce at this time is not uncommon.
So, what can we do to limit the impact on us and our partner? As in many cases, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If there are multiple children in the family, preparation for the departure of the first can be an exciting activity. If that child is going off to college, there is the excitement of looking for the right school, visiting potential colleges, making what everyone hopes is the right decision and planning for the departure of the student as they go off to their first great adventure.
There are things to buy to set up the mini-household they will be establishing in the confines of the “luxury” living space commonly referred to as the college dorm. Not to mention the much-anticipated opportunity to live with one or more total strangers who you really hope are more stable than your child. Many parents are surprised their children adapt so well to this new living situation; alas, it’s only temporary. By junior year, the excitement of all these new friends is replaced by a newfound appreciation for the quiet comfort of one’s own bed at home and the assurance of a good, home-cooked meal.
Leaving home for college can be somewhat of a trial run for permanent independence. There is a chance the college graduate will return home following graduation, during a period of extended career-planning or job search. Moving out after this period generally is a more permanent event. However, children who elect to enter the labor force after high school who live at home following high school graduation while saving enough money to become independent are less likely to return after leaving, barring some unforeseen event.
This event generally involves less fanfare than the child who leaves for college. The planning and timing for this event may be less clear or well-defined. As a result, the parent may be less prepared and may, therefore, react less positively when it occurs. Because there are no hard deadlines—for example, the beginning of a semester—there may be some resistance to the child asserting their independence, resulting in conflict or feelings of abandonment.
Because parents were somewhat conditioned by the first child leaving home, the departure of subsequent children for whatever reason is less likely to be as worrisome as the first child’s departure. These transitions frequently are smoother and result in less conflict or emotional response.
When the last child has left home, parents are left to face “the empty nest.” Their roles as parents generally are complete, with occasional exceptions. When a child faces an emergency or crisis, they frequently will seek parents’ help and support, particularly if the crisis occurs soon after leaving home. However, a crisis is unlikely to cause a child to return home for more than a very brief period. On those occasions when a child does return home for an extended period of time, it can be stressful for the child and the parents, particularly if enough time has passed that everyone has become comfortable in their redefined roles.
Parents facing an empty nest will have to redefine themselves as adults without dependent children. They predictably will have fewer restraints on their time and money and will no longer have a convenient buffer between themselves and their partner. Conflicts that may have simmered in the background may come to the forefront of their relationship. Feelings of sadness, loss and, possibly, guilt may arise. There may be a sense of emptiness or loss of purpose.
Feeling sadness, loss or emptiness may be particularly evident around holidays, especially holidays that involve family gatherings and/or traditions. Traditions and rituals that developed and evolved may have to be redefined or reinvented, depending on the circumstances. If the children have married or developed significant relationships, their partner’s families (now their extended family) will have to be taken into consideration.
Children may be unable to attend family holiday events, perhaps for the first time. These changes could lead to additional feelings of sadness, loss and, perhaps, resentment. All these changes will require a readjustment on everyone’s part and will take time and negotiation in order for a successful transition from old to new.
While children leaving home can be stressful and challenging, it also can be a time for renewal and independence. The most effective way to successfully navigate these changes is to be honest and proactive in dealing with them. Honesty is necessary in acknowledging one’s feeling during this time and identifying ways of both honoring and resolving these feelings.
Being proactive allows for planning changes in a non-crisis mode. People tend to make less-healthy choices in times of duress. Examining how changes may affect you will be helpful in identifying ways of minimizing the impact of those changes as it allows for more effective planning.
Redefining your role as something other than a parent is a good first step in making healthy adjustments to your new life. It’s likely there hasn’t been enough time for friends and activities while being an active parent. Now is a good time to reconnect with those people and activities that bring joy and meaning to your life. Reconnecting with your partner also is a healthy way of reinventing yourself. You were attracted to your mate for some reason all those years ago. Now is a good time to rediscover those reasons and carry them forward.
Identifying new interests and people with similar tastes is another good way to reinvent yourself. Most people have had an interest in something they just haven’t gotten around to trying. Now can be a good time to check off items on your bucket list. Learning a new language or skill or taking up a new hobby can help fill the gaps left by the absence of children. Going back to school, joining clubs or volunteering also can be meaningful activities. Traveling to new and exciting places might be an option, if circumstances allow.
Just because your children have left home doesn’t mean your relationship with them has ended. Really, all it has done is progressed to a more mature state. One of the key tasks of this evolution is to negotiate how much contact is the right amount. Your children will feel the change, too, so they won’t want to stop all contact.
But the quickest way to create more distance between you and them is to compensate for their absence by becoming overinvolved—at a distance. Excessive telephone call, texts, emails and visits only will serve to create further distance between you and your newly independent child. Identifying and practicing just the right amount of distance will allow your parent-child relationship to continue to grow in a healthy and happy manner.
Life-stage changes never are easy. EAP services and resources always are available to help you navigate this often-precarious path. Call 1- 800-327-4968 or search www.EAP4YOU.com on the web for further information and resources.