The causes of empty nest syndrome depression may seem self-evident but it’s worth thinking about them because understanding more about them may help you to make more sense of this phase of your life. When your whole life has revolved around caring for your children for many years, it is normal to feel some sadness and loneliness when the intense caring phase is over. You should not feel guilty for having these emotions. It is how you deal with them that matters.
1. Identity loss
I was the kind of mother who probably erred on the side of over-protecting my children and doing too much for them. Once they had left school, I missed fetching and carrying them, making their lunches, attending concerts, watching sports and even helping with homework. Suddenly the days felt very long as they were no longer broken up by all kinds of activities related to my kids. I was not used to having so much time to myself and it lay heavy on my hands at first. Every mother reacts differently to an empty nest but I think those who have been extremely involved in every aspect of their children’s lives tend to feel it more intensely. They have devoted so much time and energy to their children that there is a huge gap in their lives when they leave.
When you adult child moves out, it is hard not to worry about them. Have you prepared them enough to stand on their own two feet? What will happen when they make the wrong decisions and suffer the consequences? You are no longer able to protect them the way you did when they were growing up. You know you have to let them go and find their own way but it is not always so easy. You have watched over them for years and protected them from harm in every way you know how. Now you have to trust that they will find their feet and thrive without you being there all the time.
3. Changes in your marriage
When the children leave home, you and your husband suddenly have to become a ‘couple’ again and this often involves some adjustments. Any issues that have been swept under the carpet for the sake of the children will probably rise to the surface once again. For some couples this is a great time of rediscovery but for others it’s a time when they find that they no longer have much in common. They have grown apart over the years and no longer have much to say to one another. This creates tension and stress, increasing the risk of depression. Some experience the ‘double whammy’ of going through a divorce when their children have left home.
4. Financial worries
Some people find they have more disposable income on their hands when their children have left home. They may be able to take more holidays and start ticking off items on their bucket list. However, there is often a transition period when children are studying and not yet earning. This phase can be more financially demanding than when they were living under your roof. In an unstable economy when living costs are high, financial worries are often a major cause of depression. Of course, going through a divorce can add further financial pressures.
5. Other life changes
Other factors may come at the same time as an empty nest, making you more vulnerable. Menopause is often common during this time of life and women have to cope with their fluctuating hormones as well as their empty nest.
Many people also start having to care for their increasingly frail adult parents at this stage of their lives. Dementia, Alzheimer’s and chronic illness in a parent can add tremendous stress at a time when you are already feeling extremely fragile.
The wrong ways to deal with empty nest depression
Depression is a serious problem and it should never be taken lightly. It makes you feel hopeless, worthless and lacking in energy. It affects your appetite, sleeping patterns and concentration. If you are seriously depressed and do not have treatment, it may linger on and cause damage not only to you but those around you too. When experiencing these feelings, some people find ways to cope that are not helpful to them or those around them.
1. Finding comfort in alcohol or drugs
In Britain polls have found that empty nest mothers are resorting to alcohol as a way to cope once their children have left home. They admit to drinking on their own and usually on a daily basis. They think of their drinking as ‘moderate’ and do not realize that, according to doctors, a couple of glasses of wine each day can cause as much, if not more, damage than binge drinking. Mothers who have experienced addiction before they had children may fall more easily into this trap once their children leave.
2. Looking for someone else to fill the gap
Meri Brown who stars in the reality show Sister Wives, revealed that she struggled with loneliness once her daughter Mariah left for college. She finally told the members of her family that she had been lured into an online relationship by someone with a fake persona. There are many women who suffer from loneliness that become the victims of what is called ‘catfishing’. By the number of requests I receive on skype from good looking males who professed to be professors, engineers, majors etc. I realized just how easy it may be to fall into this kind of trap, especially if you are lonely. If a person proceeds very quickly to ‘romance’ you over chat and email, they’re most likely a ‘catfish’ and it won’t be long before they ask you for money.
Finding solace in the arms of the wrong person, if you are a divorced woman experiencing an empty nest, is another danger. Some people, especially those with low self esteem, find it almost impossible to be alone. They would rather have any partner than no partner at all. When you feel that you no longer have a purpose in life, it may be tempting to find another person to cling to but this could lead to more stress rather than happiness.
One of the most unusual ways I have ever heard of dealing with empty nest loneliness is the woman who knitted herself a son. Marieke Voorsluijs from the Netherlands is a textile designer. She says that she and her son laugh a lot about him needing his own space and her still having a need to smother him with love. She told Bored Panda that she had a lot of fun making a life-sized replica out of wool with her son contributing creative ideas. The replica wears a cap, a knitted sweater, sneakers and even has an ipod.
5 positive ways to deal with empty nest depression
Is it normal to feel sad and lonely when a child leaves home? Yes, of course. However, if you find your emotions are interfering with your daily life and you’re resorting to destructive behavior, it has gone way too far and you need help. It’s time to consult a mental health professional.
REALIZE that you are not alone in your grief. It is something that affects most parents when their children leave home.
RECOGNISE that it often occurs at the same time as other life changes such as menopause, ill–health and retirement, This means it is often not such a simple issue but compounded by other factors.
ACCEPT that sadness and crying are normal reactions.
BELIEVE it is important to give yourself time to work through your grief. You don’t want to wallow in it but you also can’t hurry it along.
FIND SUPPORT if you feel life is no longer worth living, you are not able to continue with daily activities and you keep crying all the time over a long period.
Here are some tips on how to cope if you are experiencing feelings of being ‘down’ but do not feel that you need the help of a professional. It is never easy to just ‘snap out of it’ when going through depression but you can do some things that help. Feeling better will take time and you have to start small. Taking small actions every day will help over time.
1. Work on your self-image
It’s the perfect time to rediscover yourself and build your self-esteem. Most mothers are self-sacrificing for the sake of their children. They do not have much time to spend on their own pursuits. This new phase offers the opportunity to spend time on what may have put to one side whilst rearing children.
- Revive your passions that existed before you had children. I have always enjoyed writing but I never seemed to have the time or energy when my children were growing up. This is one activity that has kept me sane over the past few years in my empty nest.
- Find new activities you enjoy doing. Perhaps you have always wanted to paint or do pottery and now is your chance.
- Think about doing things you may have not been free to do when your children were around – lie in bed late, eat at unusual hours etc. You may find experimenting with new recipes and learning to adapt your cooking to your empty nest lifestyle challenging but fun.
- It’s amazing how learning a new language or a new skill helps to boost your self-image.
- Take up some physical activity – hiking, riding, walking and going to the gym gives you a real boost, gets you out of your home and keeps you healthy. Exercising is one of the most powerful ways to fight depression.
- Make sure you get out into the sunlight for a little bit of time each day, sleep enough, eat healthily and look after yourself in every way possible.
2. Set healthy boundaries when relating to adult children
Think before you make that call to find out how they are doing. Don’t keep pestering your adult child to find out if everything is okay. You need to set some boundaries that are acceptable to both parties. It can take some time to adjust to a new way of relating. You always want to be available but you don’t want to be too intrusive or clingy. Its not healthy for your child or for you.
3. Pay attention to your marriage
Now that the children are gone, you have the opportunity to spend more time with your partner. Think about ways to enjoy time together. Re-establishing the rapport that you had in the early days before children came along can be exciting. This may end up being the most fulfilling phase of your marriage. If this is not possible and you end up facing divorce, make sure that this is the only option as it is not easy to cope with the loneliness of an empty nest and divorce at the same time.
4. Get advice about your finances
Some empty nesters throw caution to the wind and blow too much money during this phase of their lives. At a time when they should be downsizing and planning for retirement, they are enjoying the extra money that comes with not having to support children. Getting some financial advice relating to the empty nesting phase can be helpful at this point.
5. Stay connected
Take time to catch up with friends – go out for tea, enjoy a spa date together or go to a movie. Treasure the relationships you do have and don’t allow your negative feelings to cause you to withdraw. It is when you feel isolated and disconnected that negative feelings quickly escalate into depression.
Research has showed that when you help others in any way, it gives you a mood boost. You may not feel the energy to do much but simply offering a listening ear to a friend is one way to do this. Think of ways in which you can do something for someone else, no matter how small.
While you cannot replace human connections with a pet, many empty-nesters have found that caring for a pet makes them feel less lonely and isolated. It gives them something else to focus on besides their empty nest. Returning to an empty house is so much better when there is a pet waiting to greet you and playing with a pet gives you an instant lift.
As you find your feet in this new phase of your life, your feelings of sadness and loneliness will slowly begin to fade. As they fade and as you start making new discoveries about yourself, you may just find that you are entering one of the best phases of your life.