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Suzanne Koven
Suzanne Koven M.D.

The Un-Nesting Instinct

Is it normal to want your kids to leave home?

Celia's story started out sounding pretty familiar-a cliché almost. She was fiftyish and going through menopause and, in addition to the weight gain and hot flashes, she found herself irritable and sad. Her children, she told me, were a particular source of sadness. "You mean because they're growing up, moving away?" I asked. "No," answered Celia, "Because they're not."
Celia had her kids relatively late-they're now just entering their teens. Many other women Celia's age, though, have children in their twenties and older who for a variety of reasons including the poor job market, are failing to launch as discussed in a recent New York Times article. Whatever the reason parents in their fifties and sixties have kids at home, though, the arrangement may cause tension.

Though I've not seen any scientific study of this, my own observation is that one source of this tension is that many women have what I call the "un-nesting instinct" at menopause. This "un-nesting instinct" is the opposite of what some women experience at the end of pregnancy when they find themselves scrubbing floors, straightening drawers and otherwise "feathering the nest" (my own 1980s version of this behavior involved cataloguing and labeling dozens of home recorded VHS tapes). At menopause a woman may find herself with a very different urge: to get rid of stuff instead of cleaning and rearranging it, to downsize. I recall a period when every visit to my mother's house ended with her handing me a carton containing my old report cards, Girl Scout merit badge sash, or high school copy of The Great Gatsby. Even then I sensed that this wasn't just cleaning; this was a statement: "I am still your mother but I am moving on now to other things."

I shared my theory about the "un-nesting instinct" with Celia and she brightened. She liked the idea that a growing desire to have your children leave home might be normal-maybe even biological-and not one more thing to feel guilty about.

About the Author
Suzanne Koven

Suzanne Koven practices at Massachusetts General Hospital and teaches at Harvard Medical School.