In this third of a series of excerpts on midlife triggers for eating disorders, I illustrate how being unprepared for an empty nest in midlife can fuel disordered eating in both men and women.

Jay and Monica had raised four children. For nearly two decades, their lives revolved around work and the kids. Every night was a tight orchestration of who was driving whom where, who was helping with which homework, who was cooking, and who was signing permission slips. They complained about never having a minute to themselves, yet they loved every minute of parenting. As one child after the other went off to college, Monica started planning for the inevitable. She had been talking with her friends about their empty nest experiences and didn’t want to be caught her unprepared. She joined a story-telling group, began teaching adult bible study, and started a beginners’ ballroom dance class.

Jay didn’t think empty nest syndrome was something that hit men, so he made no preparations. He was just looking forward to spending more evenings watching sports. But after the last child was away at school, and Monica was off in the evenings for her activities, he started feeling the emptiness. At first, Jay reveled in Monday Night Football, but not alone—he was joined by a few beers and a bag of chips, sometimes two. Then it got worse, and he added ice cream, sandwiches, and cookies. Soon it became the food he looked forward to, rather than the football. If Monica cancelled one of her activities, and he didn’t have privacy to binge, Jay became annoyed and irritable and started binge eating in his car while driving around. One night, he spilled chili in the car while eating and driving and, although he tried to clean it up, Monica smelled it the next morning and asked him about it. He was ashamed to admit that the kids’ leaving had affected him so much, but Jay sought treatment for BED, and they began looking for things they could do together in the evenings as a couple.

As illustrated by Jay, empty nest syndrome isn’t for moms only. Men, too, can be hit or even blindsided by the last child walking out the door. There are both procedural and emotional factors associated with an empty nest that can be triggers for disordered eating. Many couples claim that their attention to healthy food, regular eating times, and nutrition in general is greater when the kids are still around. Once they leave, comments such as, “It’s not worth the trouble just for the two of us,” or “We’ll just grab something,” are commonly heard. Even families who placed considerable emphasis on family meals can slip and fail to emphasize “couple meals” once the children are gone. Not only is this bad for your health and nutrition, but it probably isn’t good for your relationship either. Coming together at mealtime is as important for couple maintenance as it is for family maintenance. Continuing to prioritize nutrition and sharing of meals can help with the procedural part of the empty nest-eating disorders equation.

The emotional component of empty nest syndrome is more challenging. People change during the twenty years it takes to raise children and launch them into their futures. Often, those changes go undetected in the day-to-day flurry of running the family and emerge as an unexpected—and sometimes unpleasant—surprise when the children leave. “This is not the person I married,” is often heard once couples are faced with just each other day in and day out. Simultaneously, you have lost one of your major day-to-day roles, namely parenting. Of course, you are still a mother or father, but there is not that all day, every day, hour-to-hour sense of being needed, for everything from changing a diaper to finding the car keys. Daily visual and physical contact with your children gets reduced to phone calls or Skype and a few visits a year. If you’re a physical family, your daily quota of physical affection goes down. All of these factors can cause someone to turn to food or, alternatively, starvation for comfort. For some, the mediating variable is mood. Children leaving home, along with problems reorienting to being a couple, can lead to feelings of low mood or depression, which themselves can influence eating behavior. Binge eating can be a way of self-medicating low mood or a way of counteracting boredom or emptiness.

The key to a successful transition is planning and recognizing that there is nothing special about you that will immunize you from the sudden impact of the empty nest. After 20 years of asking, “What do I have to do?” you can once again begin to entertain the notion of “What do I want to do?” There are still financial obligations, still problems to solve, still developmental challenges that your children will face. But when there are no sports events or school plays to watch, no staying awake until they are safe in bed, only two loads of wash in the hall, and you start buying half gallons or even quarts of milk instead of gallons, suddenly you discover free hours that are yours to fill. In order to keep from filling them with food, find new activities that you enjoy or return to activities you enjoyed before the kids, but have not had time to pursue while they were at home. It is truly a time for new beginnings—not only for the kids, but for you as well. Then when they come back for a visit, revel in the wash, the moodiness, the hugs, and the new challenges they are facing in their young adult lives.

Next up: The role of menopause and manopause in triggering disordered eating.

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