While it’s not formally recognised as a clinical diagnosis, Empty Nest Syndrome is quite common among parents with older children who leave home.
Although you might be semi-prepared, the change can feel quite sudden. One minute, your teens have taken over the house, filling it with their music, their friends, their sneakers in the hall, and the next they’re off to university, or are travelling the world. And boom, the silence hits you.
Empty Nest Syndrome hits moms harder
Tony Cassidy, professor of child and family health psychology at Ulster University maintains that Empty Nest Syndrome can affect both parents but particularly mothers who tend to experience a sense of sadness, loss, depression and loneliness, as well as a loss of purpose and meaning in life.
But it’s not all bad news. The good news is, after the initial shock, “Empty Nesters” often get a new lease on life and report feeling free and content. In fact, in a study on work-family conflict researchers noted that in a group of over 600 couples, conflict in the home was the least during the “empty nest stage” and was most intense in homes with young children, age 5 and under.
Overcoming Empty Nest Syndrome: A reader’s story
Wife, and mom, Karen Trony is in her 50s and is married with two older children, Charlotte, 30, and Matthew, 27.
Here she explains how she turned Empty Nest Syndrome into something positive…
“When Charlotte first went off to university, I still had Matthew at home, but when she left to do her master’s, he went to university, too. Them leaving also coincided with my mother dying. I felt bereft. I’d go up to their bedrooms and just sit and look at how empty they seemed without their clutter. It was almost like torturing myself, although I can see now it was a form of grieving.
Even though I work, I began wondering what the heck I was going to do. I had my kids in my 20s and my life was defined by being a mom. Having children is an adjustment, and when you come out the other end, it’s easy to forget who you are. My husband travels for work, so suddenly I was often shopping and cooking for one. Many times, after a bad workday I’d come home to an empty house and felt so alone I cried. Then I felt guilty, as there are far worse things in life, and I’m lucky I have two kids who still want to see me.
A new mindset
I started looking on the bright side. Taking over their wardrobes for my winter clothes was a start! Then I redecorated my son’s room so it’s nice for when he comes home with his girlfriend. I also became more organised about making plans for weekends when Charlotte and Matthew were home, so we’d go out for a meal or a walk. Our relationship shifted and felt more adult, which was great.
It felt like I was rediscovering myself. I met up with friends and joined a dance class, something I wouldn’t even have considered before. It’s become a weekly date and I love it. We also go out to the movies and for dinner much more often.
But one of the biggest changes has been my relationship with Murray. Secretly, I wondered how we’d be just as a couple again – but we’ve reverted to how we were before we had kids. One of us might spontaneously suggest we go out for a drink or dinner. Spending time together has brought us closer and it almost feels like we’ve gone back in time – we’re a couple again. And now when he’s away, I make the most of it with an evening watching my favourite TV show or rediscovering my love of reading.
Gradually, I’ve begun to feel the kids leaving home is not an ending, but the start of a positive new chapter.”
How to deal with life changes
Monica Castenetto, life coach and author of What’s Your Excuse… For Not Living a Life You Love? shares her tips on how to discover a sense of resolve when going through big life changes…
Any change – wanted or not – brings opportunity. It may seem brutal to find the positives during your toughest times, but that’s when you need them most.
No matter how careful we are to keep everything on track, and to count our blessings, life is always going to throw us a few curveballs. Things go wrong, plans go awry, or we reach the end of an era and can’t see a way forward. Empty nest. Relationships floundering. Illness. Retrenchment. When the changes leave us feeling flattened and directionless, how can we build ourselves back up to a future that looks fabulous?
Acknowledge the emotional shock waves
Any change sparks an emotional response. Yes, you knew your last child was heading off to university. After all, you’ve stuffed your car with a duvet, kettle and much more, and ferried them there. Of course, it’s all good, but what you didn’t expect is the effect their departure is having on you.
As, by nature, we’re brilliant at supporting other people, it’s easy to stuff your own feelings away, switch on autopilot and focus on ‘doing’, not ‘feeling’. But emotions will fester or catch up later, so allowing yourself to feel them is the first step. Don’t be judgemental. It’s not wimpy, but wise to acknowledge sadness if a period of your life has ended. Grief is a natural response to loss of any kind, whether it’s the end of those years when the kids were younger, a relationship, or a job that partly defined you. Just listen to your feelings and don’t argue with them!
Accept the change
If change has been forced, like a relationship or a job ending, or your child leaving home, it’s understandable to try to reverse the situation or bury your head in the sand. Try not to. The sooner you can accept what’s happened, the better. It’ll stop your mind churning over ‘What might have happened if’ and ‘Why I didn’t do XYZ’.
Make a decision to let the past be the past. When ‘If only’ and ‘Why me?’ thoughts surface – and they will! – remember that you’ve promised yourself not to engage with them. Only when you have accepted there’s nothing else you can do to change what’s happened can you start moving forward.
Share those feelings
The best way to come to terms with painful emotions is to talk about them and, fortunately, most of us are good at this. Maybe you have a friend who’s already gone through something similar (and come out the other side), or just someone close to you whom you trust. Some people prefer the anonymity of sharing via an online forum. Not ready for that yet? Try writing it down – then burn those pages. Getting physical helps swirling thoughts, too.
Look for opportunities
Now you can start to look forward. Every change – wanted or not – brings opportunity. Any crossroad brings a chance to take stock and think about what you want independently of employers, partners, or children. Perhaps you’ve built a life around your kids – allowing work, friends, hobbies to take a back seat – and now that they have left home, you feel utterly empty.
Once you’ve allowed yourself to grieve and accepted where you are, give yourself free reign to reimagine and reinvent. What does this change allow you to do, which you couldn’t do otherwise? Emptiness is a space into which something new can move.
Find the real you!
That sense of who you truly are, what you love doing and what makes you who you are can get submerged in years of adopting other myriad roles. We can quite simply get out of the habit of thinking about ourselves. Think about what you enjoyed in your childhood and teens.
Were you adventurous? Creative? Sporty? Studious? Think about the experiences and things that you want to try in the future. Travelling? Rediscovering a talent? Trying something new? A word of warning: when you’re low or lost, don’t be led by what others think you should do, or swayed by social media.
This is when we’re most vulnerable to life envy – alone, at home, on Facebook or Instagram, drifting in a sea of ‘boast posts’ from friends, and friends of friends. Don’t torture yourself or wallow in their happier homes, better careers, more wonderful lives. At your most rational, you know what you’re seeing is carefully curated, a public face, a long way from real life. Looking here for inspiration or ideas is not wise.
Another common mistake is to jump at the first replacement option that comes your way – to grab any next job, get into any next relationship – just to have a replacement to fill the void. It may provide a route out, a fast escape – but will it lead you to exactly where you want to be?
Find others who are having a bit of a reassessment of their lives. They may be people you already know or friends of friends. But this could be a time for meeting new people, through volunteering or a joining a book club or accepting invitations you wouldn’t normally accept. Changing the way you usually behave is a very good start to a future that feels a little more fabulous…
You don’t want too much unstructured time on your hands, so get started quickly. ‘Doing’ builds confidence, so set yourself some challenges – make a list of things to do within one week, then within a month and then within three months. Try things out, with no pressure for any particular result.
At the same time, think of a simple activity you can rely on to soothe and distract you, something that you can do on autopilot that’s creative – whether that’s knitting, baking, painting or gardening –and make time for it regularly.
Enjoy new me-time
Rediscover those long-forgotten passions that bring you joy, such as dance. A great group style to try is Nia, which combines dance with meditation and martial-arts moves.
It’s also a good idea to incorporate exercise into your daily routine, as movement is key to releasing feel-good endorphins. Plus, it will help you feel healthier and stronger – both mentally and physically. Some great low impact exercises you can do that will still work up a sweat include: