Can the Nest Be Empty if We're Still in It?
Tips and research for parents adjusting to the post-college nest.
Posted Aug 28, 2018
Like thousands of parents across the country, I recently dropped my youngest child at college.
On the one hand, I was dreading the day—the end of a nearly 25-year phase of raising children under our roof. On the other, I was eager to watch our boy spread his wings and fly. And if all goes according to plan, his new four-year home will be a place where he will flourish intellectually, emotionally, and socially, reveling in his newfound independence.
But what’s with all the "empty nest" talk? Last time I checked, my husband and I still inhabit our nest. While I’m sad that my son has left, I’m looking at this next phase as an opportunity to rearrange our nest—emotionally and physically—rather than view it as empty. It was time for the 20-pound weights to give up their residence on the family room floor and the car keys to land on a hook rather than the kitchen counter.
Transitions can be challenging, and I know it’ll take time to settle into a new normal. But change can also be exciting, and with this departure marking the end of one phase and the beginning of another, I’m choosing to look at it with positivity—a fresh start in my renovated nest.
As a life coach, I tell clients that each of us has a choice how we will approach a situation, a relationship, a challenge, or a goal, and we can then apply tools to support us along the way. So in my effort to approach this next phase with care and humor, here are some tools that I will use during the transition.
There are three elements of self-compassion—mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness, according to Kristin Neff, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Now that our son is gone, and the silence is setting in (no more Yankees games blaring and Fortnite sounds thumping), there are moments of sorrow that will surface.
I will remind myself that it’s okay to feel sadness, that many other parents are feeling the same, and then I will do something to comfort myself—perhaps take a walk with my dogs, or call a friend. Neff suggests we treat ourselves the way we would treat a friend in need of some love and support.
Feeling grateful for what you have is an effective way to lift your mood. As a parent who has launched all three of her kids, I will make time to reflect that this feat in itself is something to be grateful for. We nurtured and drove endless carpools for our kids, and now they are off to study, think, navigate, and do laundry on their own. Less laundry—definitely something to be grateful for.
We humans are wired with a negativity bias, causing us to linger in adverse thoughts and experiences longer than our happier moments. In order to level the playing field, it’s helpful to engage regularly in activities that make us feel good.
I am soon to begin self-guided lessons on my new ukulele, a challenge that will hopefully bring both music and laughs. And with evenings now our own, my husband and I can plan a weekly movie night, an evening bike ride, or dinner with friends.
Journaling isn’t for everyone, but writing can help us make sense of our experiences, according to research by James W. Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin. With the impending loneliness of a quieter house, now seems an ideal time to express my thoughts and feelings on paper.
The key message revealed by Harvard’s 75-year Grant Study is that good relationships are the most important determinant of happiness. With the kids gone, we’ll have more time for ourselves and the connections that bring us happiness. Some of my girlfriends, other “empty nesters,” have suggested we gather monthly to have dinner, see a movie, or plan other activities.
I’ve always built exercise into my weekday schedule, but on weekends, I’d stay close to home. A new study, published in the journal Lancet Psychiatry, found that group activities—team sports and exercise classes—have the strongest association with mental health. With more time on weekends, gym and yoga classes, and maybe a bike-riding group, are on my new agenda.
Being mindful means paying attention to the present-moment experience—your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors—without judgment. After 30 years of research, it seems that the potential benefits of mindfulness, which include stress reduction, improved focus, and less emotional reactivity, are worth the effort. Rather than wishing for the days our children were little or focusing on my son’s next visit, I’ll try to “be here now” as much as possible.
Kindness to Others
Smiling at a stranger, holding a door open, participating in a food drive—these acts of kindness aren’t only good for others; they’re good for us too. Research by positive psychologists Ed Diener and Martin Seligman has shown that connecting with others in a meaningful way brings us improved emotional and physical health.
As parents, we’ve had plenty of practice taking care of our children. But choosing to make time to show kindness and compassion to others has benefits—reduced stress, more resilience, and a lingering feeling of happiness, to name a few—that are different from the responsibilities of parenting. I’m looking forward to having more time to volunteer and give back to my community.
Good luck to all—particularly those whose youngest children have left or are soon heading off to school. And remember, the nest isn’t empty until you decide it’s time to pick up and move.