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An Empty Nest and a Diminished Self

Who are we without our children?

I am experiencing a dramatic change in my self concept. I am losing a part of my self, my identity, my life. Many of you may be experiencing a similar change.

William James, when he constructed the first modern definition of self, argued that the self is composed of various constituents. For example, he described the material self as being composed of everything about which I can say "mine": My body, my clothes, my car, my home, my sons. (I keep imagining the seagulls in Finding Nemo constantly chanting: Mine, mine, mine, mine.) I've written other blog posts about the material self (I am my car and my toothbrush and Blurring the self-other boundary). In this post, I focus on what James called the social self. James argued that a person "has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him (or her) and carry an image of him (or her) in their mind," (page 281 of my copy of his 1890 Principles of Psychology). I am losing a substantial part of my social self and it will hurt me deeply.

In the last week, my wife and I have joined the empty nest club. Both of our sons left home this year. We'll miss them. My sons have left and my sense of self will not be the same.

I am losing the social self that is reflected to me by my sons. I am still their father, but I will no longer have the daily interactions in which they treat me as dad. No one will call me dad, no one will complain when I wake him in the morning, no one will roll his eyes for my bad jokes at the dinner table, and no one will joke with me about my bad golf shots or inability to dance. Through occasional visits, text messages, emails, and phone calls, I will still have my ‘dad' social self reflected to me. But the activation of that social self will be much less frequent. I've enjoyed being dad on a daily basis, so losing that daily interaction will hurt and will change my sense of self.

My direct ‘dad' social self is not the only social self that I am losing. For years, I've been known as Thomas and Alex's dad. Many people in my community only know me in that role. Many people have no idea what my name is: I am only Thomas and Alex's dad. I've been proud of the title. I like the title Thomas and Alex's dad even more than the title Professor Hyman. I've happily responded when called by my sons' names.

This year fewer people will interact with me as someone's dad. Teachers won't see me that way. I won't interact with my sons' friends very often. I will rarely be seen as someone's father.

I will only rarely have my ‘dad' self reflected to me. An entire aspect of my self will essentially be lost in terms of my daily interactions.

Of course, my sons are experiencing a similar change in self concept. They will not be treated as someone's son on a daily basis. They will not have the same group of high school friends reflect their high school selves to them. I suspect that my sons may experience this as a freeing of their social self. Nonetheless, the change will be dramatic. I know many of my college student experience an odd disconnect when they return home and have their old social self reflected back to them by parents and old friends.

I am not an expert on the empty nest syndrome. I do not intend to become a poster parent for either the empty nester or for the helicopter parent. My life will go on. My wife and I will continue to be happy, healthy, and productive. I will not be the same self, however, without my sons.