Empty Nest Syndrome: Truth or Myth?

 

Empty NestEven the sound of its name conjures sadness and loneliness; after all what good is an “empty” nest? You’ve seen them, perched high in the branches of a tree or tucked into the soffits or doorjambs of a building. Empty nests: mounds of twigs, string and muck sitting abandoned, crumbling in the wind, no longer needed; no longer purposeful.

Roughly 38 million women were born between the years of 1946 to 1964, the years known as the baby boom, and many of them became mothers.

That means today, even the youngest of these women, the ones born in the sixties, are now facing the empty nest stage of life, when their children leave home either for college, to get married, or simply to move out and begin life on their own.  It’s something every parent of a newborn knows lies ahead someday, but during the hectic years of child-rearing we rarely have time to focus on its ever-nearing approach.

Then, the kids are gone and your home becomes an empty nest.

Okay, maybe not quite empty: your husband may still be there, dogs, cats, even an elderly parent or two. But your now grown children no longer require day-to-day attention. And for some women, especially those who have been home for years raising their children, the clock’s loud ticking can become something akin to Chinese water torture. Tick, tick, tick, tick…as the minutes turn to hours, then to days, weeks, and months in their now “empty” house.

Women born during the first half of the baby boom years were more likely to experience some degree of empty nest syndrome because their children left home earlier and post-college few of them ever lived home again. And since few of these women worked full-time outside the home, adapting to an empty nest was a more significant transition.

Woman on PayphoneAs a freshman in college, I called home once a week and we just had one option – a costly pay phone. Though regular mail was a far cheaper form of communication, it was not nearly as satisfying as hearing a person’s voice. In the 70’s, sharing photos required film and time consuming processing, so it was very expensive. Today, we snap pictures by the hundreds, upload them to our computers in minutes, and digitally transmit them in seconds.

I never felt depressed or even mildly sad about my daughters leaving for college.

Okay, maybe I had a wistful moment or two, during which I resorted to looking through their baby photo albums! I do, however, have a few friends who had a pretty tough time when their kids left. Some cried, not just when they hugged goodbye at the dormitory before climbing into their car to return home, but for days after their children were gone.

One friend told me, with a look of confusion and disbelief on her face, that she didn’t know what she was going to do without her daughter at home. This from a woman who owns a thriving business, so she isn’t exactly sitting around all day with nothing to do!  While my heart certainly went out to her, I readily admit I was mentally kicking up my heels at the thought of my own impending solitary status, but kindly refrained from saying so at the time.

Somewhere, deep underneath my happy thoughts, I could feel a smidgeon of guilt trying to bubble up to the surface, but I realized my mild case of guilt was because I felt bad for not feeling bad. Social pressure was getting to me! I wondered if I was “normal” for not feeling more than excitement and anticipation about my newfound freedom.

“Normal,” I silently assured myself, “is kids growing up, moving out and creating their own lives.”

I know part of my happiness around my girls starting their own lives is because I’ve been the only parent for the last 12 years. After my husband died, there were times when I literally wanted to run away from home. NOT because my kids were rotten, miserable kids. My girls were really great growing up, very easy to raise and I love them both very much. But I still found myself occasionally wanting to escape, because raising even good children can be stressful, exhausting, and rampant with constant decisions.

Do you take them to the doctor or let them ride it out? When do you let them cross the street by themselves? Are they strong enough to climb the monkey bars alone? Should I force them to get braces on their teeth? When is it the right time to let them get their ears pierced, wear makeup, go out with a boy? How late can they stay out? Should they be allowed to go the shore after prom? When they come home from college, should they still have a curfew?

Yes, raising kids involves making lots of plans and decisions.

Stuents on CampusNo matter what phase of life we’re in, we must make plans and decisions. Whether it’s welcoming our first baby home or packing the last child off to college, we’ll make the transitions that much smoother and less traumatic when we anticipate and plan for these passages. For example, thinking ahead about what we want to do once the kids are gone will help us to avoid long, empty hours when the time comes.

I urge my clients to think about the hobbies or projects they’ve put on hold during the child-rearing years. What trips or vacations have you postponed because the timing wasn’t right for the kid’s school schedules? What dreams have you long ago forgotten about, or what ideas seemed too crazy to pursue with kids in tow?

The time is now to resurrect these thoughts, ideas, and dreams. No matter how far-fetched or impossible they once seemed, now that your child-rearing years have wound down, you have a second chance to embrace these possibilities. And even though the empty nest years can be challenging to couples who have spent years focused on their kid’s needs and wants, the opportunities to re-connect with each other mentally, physically and spiritually can be deeply rewarding.

With my daughters away at college, things that seem so small make a big difference.

I don’t toss and turn in bed anymore, wondering when they’ll be home, so my sleep is finally sound. If I feel like vacuuming at 6:00 AM, I don’t worry about waking them up. If I’m happy eating the same thing three nights in a row, I know I can, without hearing complaints of “not this again!”

My daughters still come home for holidays, breaks and summer vacations. I’m always happy to see them and look forward to our long mother-daughter talks over cups of tea at the kitchen table or stretched out on my bed late at night. But I also look forward to the door closing behind them and waving to them as they drive away, knowing that once again, time will be my own.

Having an empty nest isn’t such a bad thing. I may be “home alone” with an “empty nest” these days, but I assure you, I am far from lonely! Oh, by the way, did I mention I have three dogs?

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