What is ’empty nest’ syndrome?

empty nest

Much has changed in the years since the term was first coined in the 1970s and some studies have suggested that the transition is much easier now with some parents getting a new lease on life when their children leave home. Today many mothers have careers and roles outside of the home and staying in contact with grown children is also much easier with more effective means of communicating such as email, text and skype. However, no matter how much parents prepare and look forward to the new phase in their lives, the experience of children moving on is significant and does not pass with some conflicting emotions.

A ‘shift’ rather than a ‘syndrome’

Speak to moms whose children have left home and despite the fact that they may have a career or other interests, they often still experience conflicting emotions. A part of them may be looking forward to the new phase but another part cannot help but feel sad about the stage that has ended. What happens to parents cannot be pigeonholed or generalized and each person deals with it in a different way, depending upon their unique set of circumstances.

It does not seem to matter whether you are a working parent, a single parent or a stay-at-home parent – when your children leave home, your life changes. Using the word ‘syndrome’ to refer to these changes makes them seem abnormal. They are completely normal, although they may be challenging. They are part of the life cycle of the family. This phase brings with it a need to redefine roles and find new ways to meet needs. As Wendy Aronsson, author of the book Refeathering the Empty Nest  suggests, a better way to describe this phase would be an ‘evolving nest’. She also refers to this stage in life as a shift rather than a syndrome.

Everyone experiences an empty nest in their own way

Some parents prepare for this phase and plan what they are going to do when their children have all left home – they intend to pursue their dreams that they have put on hold for the sake of their children.  For some couples, it is a time to re-examine what drew them together as a couple in the first place. They have more time to spend together and enjoy activities that were impossible when tied down by children. After all, friendship and enjoying time together is at the core of any successful relationship.

Any stresses in the marriage before the children left are often aggravated by an ’empty nest’ and a divorce may follow. This adds another element to an already stressful situation. Instead of looking forward to more time to spend together as a couple, the partners go through another major transition as they readjust to life as singles.

An empty nest often occurs together with other transitions such as menopause and retirement which compound the problem. I had my daughter late in life so I was already through menopause when she left home but I had to face the double whammy of an empty nest and divorce at the same time.  I am far from the only one to have to go through this and I have found consolation from others in the same boat as myself.

Some parents take much longer than others to adjust to life in an empty nest. They go through a period of mourning and battle to shake off the feelings of sadness that a certain phase has come to an end. They should not be judged by those who have found it easier to adjust. Everyone is different and although staying depressed and not moving on at all is obviously unhealthy, feeling sad for a while is not. There is nothing wrong with crying and taking some time to work through your grief.  Of course, if your crying continues to be excessive over a lengthy period of time and you are unable to carry on with daily activities or feel that life is not worth living, you will find it helpful to see a therapist.

Negative reactions to an empty nest

With a profound sense of loss comes a vulnerability to marital crisis, identity crisis, depression and even alcoholism. In the transition it is  easy to feel lost.  Nurturing your children was your primary focus and gave you a strong sense of purpose. Now that they are out of the house and your role is far less hands-on, you have doubts about your own identity. Once upon a time, before children, you didn’t think twice about life as a single person but that was so long ago, you can hardly remember what it felt like. Even those who have managed being parents and having careers still admit to being taken aback by the extent of their grief.

Someone with a history of depression will tend to be more vulnerable when going through a major life change like an empty nest. Depression is also one of the leading risk factors when it comes to alcohol abuse.  Parents who are retired and depressed now that children have left home can resort to alcohol as it offers a temporary escape and a way to numb emotions.  Dependence may develop and self-medicating with alcohol is a very bad idea as it affects the health of both body and mind. It is important to reach out for help if you feel you are becoming too dependent on alcohol.

An opportunity to re-invent your life

An empty nest can make you feel sad, lonely and abandoned but it can also present an opportunity to discover a new chapter in your life. Bringing up your children inevitably meant sacrificing some of the things you enjoyed, or not not having the opportunity to try out all the things you wanted to do. Now you have the opportunity so take it with both hands. It is possible to find fulfillment and a renewed sense of purpose in your empty nest.

  • Go back to the career you had before your children came along or learn some new skills.
    Taking up your career again at this stage of your life may sound impossible. However, there may be new ways to apply your past experience. I was a sub-editor of a local newspaper before I had children and I managed to find editing and proofreading opportunities online. I also took a copywriting course to  update my writing skills.
  • Take some classes for interest or for fun. Pursue a hobby you have never had time for before or learn more about a subject that has always interested you. I have done a number of online courses and I  went to a cooking class which was great fun. This year I am going to attend an art class.
  • Join groups to meet new people.  Meetup.com is a good place to look for groups – you are sure to find ones for your interests, age group and in the area where you live.
  • Exercise not only gives you the opportunity to get fit and makes you feel better due to increasing your serotinin or ‘feel good’ hormone but it can also provide a way to meet people.  This year I started cycling and I am feeling the benefits.
  • Pay attention to your appearance as it will help you to feel better about yourself. Try out a new hairstyle or even a new way of applying your makeup. Perhaps you have been sticking to what you know for many years and it is time to make a change.
  •  Too many empty hours can make the transition more difficult. Making a bucket list and ticking off items can help you to feel a sense of direction and give you a feeling of accomplishment.
  • Rediscover talents that may have brought you joy in the past. Writing was what I enjoyed and brought me fulfillment before I had children. I had little time for it while raising my children and helping my ex-husband to run his business. Thanks to having time to focus on it again, I rediscovered my passion for words.

It is not always easy to face the silence of an empty house after years of activity and no time to call your own. However, rising to the challenge can be extremely rewarding. Another benefit is developing a mature relationship with your children that is deeper and more fulfilling now that they are adults. There is a real opportunity to re-invent your life when you are faced with an empty nest. It’s not the end of the road but just another branch in it taking you to a new destination.

8 Comments

  1. Jess

    Wow! I love your perspective on how everyone experiences transition differently and that “syndrome” makes what parents experience sound weird. It is awesome how you are choosing to look at the positives in the situation by pursuing dreams that you may have put off and/or rekindling your relationship with your spouse. I have not experienced this transition yet, but I have some friends that are so I will point them to your site to help them out. Thanks for the info!

    Jess

    Reply
    1. Erica (Post author)

      Hi Jess,
      Thanks so much for your comment. Its funny how that word “syndrome” puts a whole negative slant on the transition when it can be so positive. I really want to help people deal with this shift in their lives without feeling any guilt about what they are experiencing and help them find new purpose.

      Reply
  2. Ian Clarke

    Although your children may have left the family home they never leave your thoughts. We have two girls aged 52 and 46 and a boy in the middle and we still worry about what they are getting up to! They probably worry just as much about us !

    Reply
    1. Erica (Post author)

      Thanks for the comment Ian. Parenting never ends – my mother who is 82 still worries about me, even though I am nearly sixty! I have found that being the parent of adult children can be very rewarding but sometimes its hard letting go and it takes some adjustment.

      Reply
  3. Arlette Nadar

    Hi Erica…

    I loved this post….we were a very young couple when we started child bearing….18 and 21 exactly….so now when the children “have flown the coop” we are aged 45 and 48….lovely age to be at….by now you see life soooo clearly….love the days gone by but never want to go there again…want to can travel to see the world…

    I would like to say that people just went back to basics and started child bearing early….the “empty nest syndrome” my cease to exist…and people might start looking forward to freedom from responsibilities and stress of family….much less divorce …if they were able to stick out the initial years…

    Reply
    1. Erica (Post author)

      Thanks for the comment Arlette – lovely to be so young when your children have grown and to have the chance to travel and do other wonderful things. You bring up an interesting point – so many people choose to start having children really late in life these days.

      Reply
  4. Sheila

    Erica! I love this site and especially this blog. I like that term “evolving nest”. I was a mom of a different flavor. First off when I hit 18 I moved out on my own with 3 roommates. Back then we couldn’t wait to get out of the house and experience life. That same persona followed me into adulthood. Unpopular with son, when he turned 18 I said…time to strike out and experience life, my son! He was like…WHAT???

    Keep in mind he was like 3 weeks late being born so it was hard wired in his DNA to stay at home and “nest” forever. The cord may have been cut at the hospital, but his internal cord was still firmly attached. LOL!

    I love reinvention and have reinvented myself several times throughout my life, and I’m sure I’m not done yet.

    Thanks for this piece…good stuff!

    Reply
    1. Erica (Post author)

      Thanks so much for your input Sheila! My son sounds just like yours – he would even joke with me about the great big pigeon still sitting in the nest. You sound like the type of creative person who finds reinvention essential – I really admire you for your gutsy approach to life.

      Reply

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