Last weekend my whole family sat around the table together for the first time in a long time. It was too much like old times for me and after everyone left I felt depressed. Here I was urging others to make the most of their empty nest and I was sitting between my four walls all alone and feeling guilty for being miserable. What made me feel better was the realization that I was not the only one. There are many, many other women who go through the same process and feel the same way. Nobody seems to be immune, and even celebrities and career women have to deal with this stage in their lives. I realize that although I am moving forward and letting go, at the same time pain and grief demand to be acknowledged.
I came across an excerpt from what one mother had written to her son that resonated with me “I miss the constant noise in every room and the silent guitar seems to be a symbol of all the changes I am going through. I am trying to catch up with the reality of the change and know that I have to let go. Sometimes I have this intense longing to have you with me, but I know in my head that if I can let go of the past, and start looking ahead, some of the best years may still be ahead”. This mother managed to capture my own experience – what I know so well in my head needs to find its way into my heart.
Some people seem to make this transition easily. They think that women have been conditioned to be devastated when their children leave. They feel there is no such thing as ‘empty nest syndrome’ and even experience a sense of relief when the last child finally walks out of the door. Many couples are delighted that at last they have the opportunity to travel and do all the other things they did not have time for when their children were at home.
However, there are other mothers who grieve deeply. Some simply cannot understand why they are suffering because they have careers, very full lives and other roles besides being a mother. Kate says “I feel ashamed about the fact that I can’t seem to get over my son leaving home. Most people who know me would be surprised by this confession. I have many friends, interests and hobbies. I love to travel and I read a lot. I have always been passionate about overcoming old-fashioned ideas about motherhood and femininity. Why am I suffering like this?”
Do men suffer when children leave home?
Even men suffer when children leave home, particularly as so many fathers are far more ‘hands-on’ today. Actor Rob Lowe was very open about how he reacted to his son leaving home in his memoir “Love Life”. He said “I have been emotionally blindsided. I know that this is a rite many have been through, that this is nothing unique. I know that this is all good news; my son will go to a great school, something we as a family have worked hard at for many years . . .I know that this is his finest hour. But looking at his suitcases on his bed, his New England Patriots posters on the wall, and his dog watching him pack, sends me out of the room to a hidden corner where I can’t stop crying.”
A mother’s anguish
I recently watched the film Boyhood, a story about a young boy growing up. It was shot over a period of 12 years using the same actors. Patricia Arquette gives a stellar performance as the single mother of the boy. At the end of the film when her son packs to leave for college she sobs and says “I thought there would be more!” For single or divorced women, when their children leave home and they are left completely alone, the transition can be particularly devastating.
I have many friends, activities and hobbies but being a mother was central to my life for many, many years. Now that my children do not need me as much anymore, my role is changing and I am moving on but every now and then my emotions get the better of me. The advice you get is to enjoy your freedom but sometimes it is difficult to relish it until you have reached a certain point in the grieving process. I am beginning to understand that there is no clear cutoff point at which you can say “I have moved on, I have let go and I am not looking back”. I think it is important to realize that you are in a transition period and to accept this and understand that it is a process, rather than feeling guilt about your emotions and pretending they don’t exist. Acceptance bridges the gap between head and heart. It brings relief as you face the fact that your life has changed. At the point of acceptance, healing can begin.
I would love to get your comments. Do you believe that ’empty nest syndrome’ exists? Are you excited about your empty nest or are you struggling to reach acceptance?