Empty Nest Season Has Arrived

It's okay to grieve your child's departure, but enjoy the relief, too!

Posted Aug 27, 2018

As the new school year starts across the nation, a brand new beginning is in the works for the families of young adults who are heading off to college or moving out on their own as the final summer of “dependence” on the parents comes to an end.

The “empty nest syndrome” has been a part of the parental experience for at least a couple of generations now – the result of a cultural shift that occurred due to a couple of significant influences. Jobs and careers became much more peripatetic than they once were and college became a mainstream expectation for a much larger number of young adults. Parents were no longer able to keep their kids “down on the farm” for long, anymore.

Relief & Grief: All Rolled into One

Seeing the last child leave home can leave parents feeling a mixed bag of emotions. There is often a sense of relief that you’ve finally accomplished the goal that all parents should strive for – raising a child who is actually able and willing to leave home and begin to craft an independent identity.

There is also a feeling of bereavement, too, as parents realize that another phase of their life is ending and that their own sense of identity is necessarily going to shift, as well. Not only that, but a beloved (even if occasionally maddening) family member has departed the daily sphere of family activity.

Change is seldom easy and when a change represents a step further into the aging process, it can be especially painful for many of us. If your kids have been the primary focus of your daily schedule and weekly Costco runs, it’s not easy to quickly revise your mental priorities or regular shopping list. However, life is a series of transitions, endings, and new beginnings. When these all happen at once, though, it can be difficult to digest.

Challenges of the Empty Nest

When the last child leaves home, there can be a lot of dissonance. It can be disconcerting when being a “mother” or a “father” is a huge part of your identity, but there are no longer any children in the house to “mother” or to “father.”

While you don’t stop “being” a parent, circumstances limit your opportunities to “actively” parent. (Warning: don’t let yourself suddenly try to “parent” your partner, younger colleagues at work, etc. Parenting isn’t a “one size parents all” proposition – and your attempts to parent other adults may cost you some good will from others.)

Grief is a natural response, too. It’s okay if you need to spend some time sitting in your child’s now empty room and take a short ride down “memory lane.” It’s normal to miss your child, but it’s not normal to obsess about their absence or let your grief get in the way of daily activities. It’s normal to hold onto a child’s favorite “blankie” or sports jersey; it’s not normal to “hold” that blankie or jersey on a regular basis!

A big challenge of the empty nest is that it is often accompanied by other transitions that aren’t necessarily welcome or easy to manage. Caregiving for older adult relatives may now be needed. Job transitions may be upcoming – either stepping down at work, retiring, or beginning a new job hunt now that the “kids are grown.”

Sometimes it’s not just the effect of one transition, a child moving out, it can be the combined effect of multiple transitions and losses at one time that makes the “empty nest” such a painful experience.

Benefits of the Empty Nest

New empty nesters shouldn’t lose sight of the benefits of their new situation:

  • There’s a new sense of freedom that the “adults” can enjoy in their home now. While most adolescents seem to lead a relatively autonomous life, now you really can stop worrying about a lot of little things you might not have even realized you were worrying about. Leaving on the porch light, figuring out how many places to set at the table each night, which days were game days, who needed the car when, and so on. You don’t have to wonder, either, if the dog’s been fed – if you or your partner haven’t taken care of this, at least you know for sure it still needs to be done!
  • You get to figure out your own favorite television shows and no worry about accidentally “deleting” someone else’s “DVR saves” that they haven’t yet viewed.
  • With all of the children out of the house, you are able to explore and reformulate your own personal identity and schedule. If school night meals were based on activities and lessons, now you can choose when and what to eat every night of the week. No more worries about who won’t eat sweet potatoes or who can’t stand the smell of curry.
  • Hobbies and leisure pursuits don’t have to be scheduled around child-related commitments – and you don’t have to wonder who took the fresh can of tennis balls or if the book club schedule conflicts with game nights.
  • If you’re married, having the house to yourself can be either bring a sense of unbridled freedom or unexpected grief. Focus on the joy that can be had knowing that you and your partner are free to enjoy intimacy without a child showing up unexpectedly.
  • While sometimes it can be unsettling for a couple to realize that they related to one another primarily through their kids, it’s also an opportunity to enjoy that feeling of “novelty” and “newness” that early relationships typically offer. Getting to know your partner anew can be surprisingly enjoyable when you look at it as “renewing” a relationship, even if it sometimes feels like “rewiring” an old relationship.

Friendships & Social Relationships

  • You now can build friendships that are built on more than just “carpool” and “team parent” connections. In fact, we tend to be a lot more selective in our social relationships over time, so now is a great opportunity to start weeding the friendscape to be more reflective of what you need in friends rather than focusing on the friends who trade child-related favors.
  • Friends of the heart, or your “chosen few,” can be your focus now rather than spending your limited relationship energy on “friends of convenience.”
  • Even cooler, for some empty nesters, is the chance you have to get to know your kids as “people” in their own rights – you can begin to imagine friendships with your young adult kids when before you had to cast yourself in to role of disciplinarian/guide/responsible party.