Feeling mixed emotions when your children leave home is perfectly normal. Even those who thought they would handle the transition with ease may find it is more difficult than they expected. Some grieving is bound to occur. An empty nest often comes at the same time as various other challenges such as caring for ageing parents, divorce, retirement, lack of finances and menopause. This often compounds the problem.
Dr. Carin Rubenstein, author of Beyond the Mommy Years: How to Live Happily Ever After…After the Kids Leave Home reveals in her book how and why some mothers thrive and others do not. She did some intensive research and breaks down the time after the children leave the nest into three stages – grief, relief and joy. Most parents will go through the stage of grief and move on. However, there are some who just cannot seem to stop grieving.
Who will find an empty nest more difficult?
- If you are a single or divorced parent, you will usually find it more difficult. There is no-one else at home with whom you can share your initial grief and no-one to partner you in attempting new activities. Someone in a bad marriage may have exactly the same problem.
- Empty nest grief is particularly prevalent in – but not exclusive to – women. It tends to occur mostly in women because traditionally women have been the primary care givers to children.
- If you have already had problems with depression or anxiety in your life, an empty nest can precipitate a recurrence.
- If you gave up having a career and stayed at home to look after your children, the gap in your life may feel huge when mothering becomes less hands-on.
- You may have a lack of self-esteem that results from focusing exclusively on your children at the expense of your own personal growth.
- If you battle to handle change, rather than looking forward to it and regarding it as a challenge, you are more likely to be affected.
However, it is always difficult to predict who will be most affected – sometimes a career woman may feel it just as much or more than a stay-at-home mom. Some men have voiced publically how much the empty nest has affected them – they are certainly not immune. For most parents, it does take some time to adjust. You need to allow yourself to work through the grief. It is probably best not to rush into decisions like starting a new career, selling a home or buying a puppy. It does get better as you start to work through your grief, begin to make the most of your new freedom and enjoy the company of your adult children when you do see them. However, those who are simply unable to move on need to seek out help.
Signs that you may need help
- You always feel sad
- You are tearful throughout the day
- You don’t have the energy to try new interests
- You don’t even want to do the activities that you looked forward to doing when you had more time
- You feel a lack of purpose in your life
- You feel lonely and isolated
Negative ways of coping
A profound sense of loss that does not go away can make you vulnerable to an identity crisis, depression, alcoholism, and marital conflict. If you do not receive help, you might find yourself trying to fill the gap in ways that only make your situation worse in the long run.
Relying too heavily on your children
Sharing your grief with your children makes them feel guilty and puts unnecessary pressure on them. It also makes it difficult for them to talk about their own feelings for fear of making you even more upset. It is much better to talk to a trained, impartial professional if you are really battling.
Research in the UK suggests that mothers whose children have left home are driving Britain’s alcohol epidemic. Their alcohol intake increases once their children fly the nest. They consume alcohol every day and often on their own. They seem to think because they do not binge drink, they have nothing to worry about. Drinking offers them a temporary escape and helps them to numb the grief for a while. Unfortunately, the effect soon wears off. This often leads to more alcohol being consumed to achieve the same effect and dependence may develop.
It’s not surprising that eating problems may develop in an empty nest. Experiencing an overwhelming sense of loss often disturbs eating patterns. You may need to learn how to enjoy eating alone after spending years eating with the whole family. There may be a tendency not to eat properly because you no longer have to prepare large family meals. It is also easy to overindulge in comfort food to fill the gap and suffer from all the health problems related to being overweight.
You may be so lonely that you look for love in all the wrong places. I have seen a number of adverts on Craigslist where men target women in an empty nest and offer them everything from a listening ear to a Spa-like massage treatment. Some lonely women have become involved in online liaisons and this often opens them up to exploitation. Meri Brown of Sister Wives admitted that this happened to her. This reality TV star is part of a polygamous family with four wives and 17 kids and said “usually, when people go through having an empty nest, it’s a couple doing this together, but in a plural marriage that’s not the case.”
When you feel that life in your empty nest is unbearable, don’t be afraid to find professional help. Talking to a trained counsellor can help you get to the root of your feelings and move forward.
Natalie Caine is the founder of Life in Transition which provides Empty Nest Support Services. She helps empty-nest families and is available for individual and phone consultations.
Counselling Directory – connects you with professional support if you live in the UK.
http://www.internationalcounsellingdirectory.com is a worldwide counselling directory for all services, professionals, organizations on an international scale.
Talking to others going through the same experiences can also help:
Join an empty nest support group online.
Join a Facebook empty nest support group.