I recently went to lunch with a group of friends. Most of us are either empty nesters or about to be in an empty nest. What struck me was the difference in the attitudes. Some of us were excited about the change, already planning to convert empty bedrooms into offices and exercise rooms. Others were apprehensive about the change, determined to keep things as they have always been. We are all going to miss our young men and women, but we are all coping differently. What is the healthy way to react? How can we prepare for that change from full house to empty nest?
And for those of us who are married, how does our spouse fit into this whirlwind of emotions? Are WE taking this journey together or are we now two strangers living in the same house with few things in common?
You may be saying “This doesn’t apply to me. My kids are still in elementary school.” But the common thread for all of us was the realization of the importance of our marriage, where it all began and just how important it would be when our children transitioned to full independence. We also realized that we wished we had better prepared for the gradual exodus of our children and the range of emotions we would feel…joy, sadness, pride, relief, guilt, anticipation, etc.
So, how do we prepare for the empty nest?
Start early, nurture the marital relationship and be careful not to make the children your main or only focus. Easy to say, right? Harder to do when those little cuddly bundles arrive with all their needs.
Whether you are a married or a single parent, get in touch with yourself
By the time our children leave the nest we have spent the past 18-20 years invested in taking care of our families. The hope is that once the kids grow up and are more independent or leave the nest we will have time to take care of our needs. The fact is that we need to start those habits, before the house is empty.
Start your emotional self-care by re-discovering your purpose. “Many women adopt the primary identity of ‘mother’ or ‘nurturer’ and often feel lost or without purpose when their kids grow up and move out of the house,” says licensed marriage and family therapist and licensed professional counselor Dea Dean. Before the kids leave, you need to reconnect with who you are as a person. ”
The first step is getting back in touch with yourself,” says Anna Hoffman, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist at Thrive Psychology in California. According to Dr. Hoffman, “If you were to invest as much energy into taking care of yourself as you would your own child, what would you do? Ask yourself, ‘How can I take good care of you emotionally? Physically? Spiritually? What would bring you a greater sense of meaning or joy? Whom do you want to spend time with?’ Don’t be surprised if answering these questions is very difficult! Remember, your attention for almost two decades, maybe more, has often been focused outside yourself! It’s challenging to turn that attention toward ourselves and the importance of our adult relationships, hobbies, interests.”
Be ready to redefine your role as a parent
The way you’re affected when your young adults leave the nest may be different depending on the makeup of your family and your role in it. “If you’re a single parent, you may have a very strong bond with your child, and this can cause a deeper sense of loss when your child leaves the nest,” says Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D., a therapist in Florida and author of the book Gaslighting. “You may also feel a sense of relief and pride that your child has become independent — and you may feel some guilt about feeling relief.
If you’ve raised children as a couple, there may be conflicts over how each of you is processing or handling them transitioning away from home. Children’s needs change as they grow, and you have changed right along with them. What are your needs now? If married, what are your partner’s needs? How will you minister to one another in this transition while also caring for yourself? Conversely, will it be a competition about whose feelings matter most or who hurts worse?
Amy Morin, LCSW in her article, 5 Ways to Cope with Empty Nest Syndrome, suggests that you identify your new parental roles. You can still be a parent, but you may not be front-and-center any more, and that’s ok. Your young adults need you on a different level; they need you to let them learn how to carry their own responsibilities as they may be standing in your shoes someday. Really give some thought to their need not to feel guilty at this exciting time in their lives. Your fears about how they will be able to navigate without you, as well as your emotions can affect their growth in a negative way.
Resist the urge to stay over-involved or check in too much
In her VeryWellFamily.com article, Denise Witmer says “If you obsessively monitor your child’s social media accounts, call every morning, and spend every minute worrying about how your child is doing in college or in their new place, you won’t be able to move on with your life. Coping with empty nest syndrome means letting go and letting your child grow into an independent adult. Of course, you should certainly check in on your child’s well-being. But give your child some privacy—and the space to make a few mistakes. It’s healthier for both of you.”
If married, nurture your relationship
Along with that profound sense of accomplishment and independence we feel as we watch our children start a life as adults, we may also feel a sense of mourning for the loss of what was, even if we know that what’s coming is normal and healthy. That newfound independence and possible grief can either drive us together or tear us apart as a couple. It all depends on the foundation we have built, and that foundation is not built the day they leave. You may have a period of getting to know each other again.
In many cases, when couples have more time to focus on their relationship, it becomes stronger. Others may realize their relationship has run its course and it is in their best interest to separate.
Working on relationships is something we should do throughout our years together. Staying connected to your partner throughout the years of toddlerhood, childhood, adolescent and elementary school kiddos transitioning into teenagers is what will keep your relationship strong as they transition from home to adulthood. These bonds can be built through communicating, working together, PLAYING together. Active Relationships curricula for couples provides tools to keep love alive and your relationship vibrant.
One of my friends at that lunch said that “parenting is one of the few jobs that, if you have done it correctly, you have worked yourself out of a job.” I don’t know if I agree with that. I think you work yourself into a promotion. You can turn that extra bedroom into an exercise room or an office, you can go on unscheduled dates without worrying about babysitters AND you can still be a parent. The more you surround yourself with like-minded people with common experiences and approach the situation with an open mind, the smoother the transition will be.