A positive perspective and some advance planning can help parents (and their kids, too) during the transition from a full house to an empty nest.
Robert Lauer remembers feeling an "incredible, gnawing emptiness" when his youngest son left the family nest. "Finding him a place to stay at school and leaving him there; returning, alone, to my hotel and then getting on the plane to fly home, I wore my sunglasses and cried," he says.
Becoming empty nesters can be a heart-rending transition for parents. Lauer and his wife, Jeanette, co-authors of
How to Survive and Thrive in an Empty Nest: Reclaiming Your Life When Your Children Have Grown
, are no different. Although these San-Diego based psychologists and research professors have years of experience helping families make such transitions, their own transition was difficult. But they didn't expect it to be otherwise.
There is a natural sense of loss when children leave the family home; a feeling that the "best part is over," say the Lauers. Feelings of despair, pain, poignancy, longing, and ambivalence are common. The loss of the physical presence of their children is compounded by the loss, to some degree, of their identities as "mom and dad." Some parents may fear they have not done enough to prepare their children for independence. Many parents may feel their lives have lost meaning and purpose, and they may mourn the loss of opportunities in their relationships with their children. To top it off, the transition to the empty nest often coincides with parents having mid-life crises of their own.
That's the downside. Fortunately, there's an upside, too.
Once over that difficult, initial emotional hump, the Lauers found the empty nest to be revitalizing, even liberating. "Empty nesters have the time and energy to do things they couldn't do before," they say. In addition to the happiness they've found in developing their own lives after their children left home, watching their children grow and function as good, law-abiding people has brought the Lauers a lot of joy. "You really can have your cake and eat it too," says Robert Lauer. "We empty nesters no longer have the day-to-day constraints of living with our children, yet we still share our lives with them." An empty nest allows you more time to nurture your marriage and pursue your common and individual interests. You may even have more discretionary income!
Preparation and perspective are the keys to easing the transition. "While it's okay and necessary to grieve when your children leave home," the Lauers say, "start making plans immediately for how you will expand your lives with new pastimes, hobbies, and friendships." Try new things.
Think of this as an adventure, and don't put limits on yourself. Open yourself to all the fullness and richness of life. If your identity is tied to being a parent, it's particularly important for you to get a running start, says Dr. Arthur Kovacs, a Santa Monica, California psychologist. "Don't wait until your children leave home. When they are teens and a little more independent of you, begin to make plans. Make commitments and find activities that will create the texture of your life after they leave."
The first week or so following your child's departure will be the most turbulent time. There is a sudden stillness in the home, says Kovacs, which can be very difficult and traumatic for parents. Make plans to fill that time; stay busy. Indulge yourself. Plan quiet time for you and your partner, and be loving, supportive, and understanding with each other.
Don't just stare at each other twiddling your thumbs now that the kids are gone. While the kids are at home, many of us fall into the trap of neglecting our own relationships. "When the kids leave home, the space that the children occupied between you disappears, making it necessary to "renegotiate" the partner relationship, says Kovacs. "Plan on spending time with each other and rediscovering each other," he says.
Be alert to friction that can arise when partners handle their grief differently. "Women usually permit themselves the fullness of what they are feeling, while men often try to tough it out. Men might view women as overemotional, while women may feel that the men seem callous. That can get very annoying," Kovacs says.
Although they may not always show it, men often feel the loss of the empty nest as keenly as women. "There's no necessary gender difference," say the Lauers. "The differences occur depending on how much each partner has invested in parenting and how prepared they are ahead of time." Stay-at-home moms whose identities have been defined by their children, and single parents, whose identities and social lives have been wrapped up in their children, will feel a keen sense of loss. The loss can also be extremely painful for men who have invested too little in parenting and who suddenly realize it only when their children begin to leave home.
Women also tend to "pre-grieve," or grieve in anticipation of their children leaving home, says Andrea Van Steenhouse, PhD, author of
Empty Nest…Full Heart: The Journey from Home to College
. Men, on the other hand, underestimate this anticipatory grief and then find themselves struck by the powerful emotions they feel when their child departs. Weak spots in relationships also tend to be exposed during stressful times, says Van Steenhouse. Struggling with the complexities of a child leaving home can create a lot of stress. Try to mitigate it, she says, by spending at least one night a week doing something with your mate. "It's too tempting to spend every minute with your departing child and saying, 'I'll get around to my mate later.' That's just misguided."
Leaving home is as difficult for kids as it is for their parents. They may be feeling confused, excited, anxious, or even fearful as their departure looms. If you are getting the support you need from your partner and friends, you can attend better to your child, says Van Steenhouse. Burdening your children with your emotions, needs, and struggles as they prepare to leave home places a lot of guilt and stress on them at a time when they are also very vulnerable. Here are some tips to keep in mind as the day of separation nears:
- Let your child know that you love him and will miss him, but that you are excited for him and have confidence in him.
- Celebrate what's happening for your child, and try to put a positive spin on the experience. You don't want your child to think you are happy he is leaving, but you don't want him to know you're devastated either. This may require some creative acting ability, says Kovacs. (Hint: Don't start repapering his room until after he's left…)
- Let your child know that you have plans to fill your time after he leaves.
- Kids are relieved, say the Lauers, to know their parents are going to be okay after they're gone and that they won't spend their days moping around the house because there are no children left to take care of.
- Avoid sealing yourself off from your child prematurely, and let them know you are noticing their feelings
- Van Steenhouse suggests asking a question such as, "You seem a little upset today. Is there anything I can do to help?" This tells your kids that you are plugged in, but not making demands, she says. It's important to stay connected without driving them away. If your child begins disengaging as D(eparture) day approaches, don't take it personally, or feel jealous or upset. It's just his way of adjusting.
- Let your child determine the ritual of separation.
- You can settle on a preferred means of contact (phone, email, instant messaging, etc) and the minimum frequency of contact (at least once a week, for example). Parents should not call all the time, Kovacs says, and should be prepared to receive the child on his terms. Avoid parenting your fledgling as you did when she was living under your roof. It's hard. You still worry. You're anxious. You can't fix everything anymore. But you have to respect them as adults, even if their decisions are not the ones you would have made for them.
No longer knowing where your child is and what she is doing each day can be anxiety-provoking. Try to remember that no news is good news. You were anxious when she was a clumsy toddler, when you left her crying at the school door on her first day of kindergarten, when she drove your car alone for the first time. This is just the next step, so hold your breath and move on. The fuller your life is once your child leaves, the less time you will have to obsess about it. After all, kids train parents to deal with this anxiety from age 14 to age 18, says Van Steenhouse. They're not going to report to you what they're up to and they're certainly not going to tell you the bad stuff. You have to trust that they are the people they were when they left home, and go on with your life."
And as Kovacs says, "There's a physiological reality that you can only sustain worry for so long before becoming exhausted and simply unable to worry any longer. And, if it makes you feel any better, they might very well come back," he warns. Adult children returning home is a growing trend in our society. Your job's not over once your children have left home. It's just different. "There's no finer friendship than being friends with your grown children," Jeanette Lauer says. "It's a parent's responsibility to nurture that."