Feelings of loss and anxiety about change when the last child leaves home are normal. But it often has been pathologized in popular culture as a disorder, disease or condition that needs treatment. Usually it’s not and it doesn’t.
In fact, the “empty nest syndrome” usually doesn’t exist at all. For most families, the last kid going off to college or to a first good job and apartment is a cause for celebration and relief, not a stage of loss at all.
Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central’s Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.
Editor: Nadeem Noor
On the other hand, it is a time of change. Parents who have been very involved with their kids’ lives — coaching the teams, endlessly carpooling, monitoring homework, sharing a hobby or activity and truly enjoying each other’s company — may find themselves with hours of time they haven’t had for years, as well as without the buddies with whom they shared those activities. Like most change, this can present an opportunity or a crisis.
It’s an opportunity:
- For more spontaneity.With no sports practices and games to get to after dinner or on weekends, with no homework to monitor and no need to find child care, you can do things like go to a movie on Wednesday night or take off for a weekend on short notice.
- To stop being a role model (at least once in awhile).With children in the house, it’s important to serve healthy meals on a regular basis, both to feed growing bodies and to establish good eating habits. These days, if you and your spouse want a martini and ice cream for dinner, you aren’t falling down on your job as a parent.
- For developing your own interests.You don’t resent the years you spent watching a sport you don’t especially like but that your children loved, participating in their education, or doing the thousand chores it takes to raise a family. But it left little time for your own hobbies, especially any interest that takes focused time. It’s wonderful to be able to read for a whole evening, to take up an instrument, to rehearse a play or to actually finish a project in a few weeks instead of a few years.
- For buying things for yourself.We do our best to give our kids what they need and a fair amount of what they want. Often that means sacrificing or putting off things we want or need ourselves. With no one needing new sneakers or field trip money or whatever, it’s wonderful to be able to buy ourselves treats now and then.
- To reconnect with your partner in a new way.Couple partnerships often suffer some neglect when they’re focused on raising children. Often communication is primarily around logistics (like who is driving which kid where) and problem-solving (like how to help Junior pass his history exam or how to discipline Sis who was out past curfew). With no children at home, partners can once again have longer and more meaningful conversations. They can rediscover each other and take their relationship to a new level.
- For more intimacy.With no risk of discovery by a child, it’s possible again to make love in the afternoon and in the living room. It’s possible to wear a naughty nightie instead of flannel pajamas. It’s okay to have a lingering kiss in the kitchen or to sexually tease. There’s no young person to shield from those personal intimacies and connections that are part of adult romance.
It can be a crisis:
- If the kids have been the primary focus of your life.As important as it is to love our children and love the job of parenting, it’s also a stage of life, not the whole of it. Those who have thrown themselves into parenting to the exclusion of their own interests do sometimes find themselves wandering the empty house, feeling like their purpose in life has vanished. They aren’t wrong. Their purpose for those 18-plus years has reached an endpoint. Now it’s time to redefine the relationship with the child, the spouse if there is one, and with the self. It can be disorienting. If it hasn’t been prepared for, it can truly feel like a crisis of identity, purpose and meaning.Grieving the life stage and the loss of all the activity and daily emotional connection with multiple people having multiple needs can go on too long if there isn’t some thing and some people to take its place. If it lasts more than a month after the last child leaves home, it’s probably a good idea to see a counselor to help you through.
- If other parents on the bleachers were your only friends.It’s easy to think you have a busy social life when you are around people all the time due to children’s activities. But sharing a bleacher or carpool doesn’t necessarily mean that you are sharing a friendship. Many parents can’t find the time to develop real adult friendships when in the thick of parenting. When the children leave, they find themselves with few or even no meaningful and deep adult relationships.
- If the kids were a distraction from things going wrong with your relationship.Some couples bury themselves in work and children’s activities as a way to avoid dealing with the fact that they are growing apart. When the kids leave, they find themselves looking at each other and seeing a stranger. Left to themselves, all the little irritations and big disagreements that have been left unattended come into focus.Sometimes such couples can take a deep breath, have some very painful and yet productive conversations, and make the changes they need to make to face the next stage of life together. Sometimes they need the help and support of a couples counselor to know even where to begin. It’s always worth a shot. You’ve done the job of raising the kids together. Now it’s possible that you can rediscover the love and interest that brought you together in the first place.
- If you didn’t prepare the kids to be independent.Kids who were over-parented don’t want the parenting to stop. They want their parents to continue to monitor their homework, help them with their papers, bail them out when they overspend and bawl out the roommate they can’t stand. It may be tempting to participate and protect. But doing so will further impede their growing up and will prevent you from moving to the next stage of life.
- If you are depressed by the idea that you are no longer needed as an active parent.Needing to be needed in order to feel like you have a place in the world isn’t healthy. It means you are always dependent on having a “needy someone” to be your partner in the transaction. It’s time to find another way to relate to others and to feel good about yourself.
Opportunity or Crisis?
Parenting is a wonderful, joyful, frustrating, humbling and important stage of life. But once the intense time of getting the children to adulthood is over, it’s up to us to decide what we will do with the rest of life that is available to us. Certainly, staying in touch and relating to our children as adults should be part of the next stage. But our kids can’t continue to be the center of our lives if they are to be healthy adults with new families. It’s their turn to be partners and parents. It’s our turn to rediscover ourselves.
Whether this new life stage is an opportunity or crisis is up to us. One of the marvelous things about being human is that we can decide what we want to do next. Sometimes we have enough perspective and personal resources to do it on our own. If we’re in crisis, we may need to reach for some professional help to say goodbye to that chapter and hello to a new one. However it happens, it’s yet another chance to grow.