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Beyond the Empty Nest

Photo by Natalie Caine

Photo by Natalie Caine

Natalie Caine expected to suffer empty nest syndrome when her only child departed sunny LA  for college in New York a few years ago.  Ms. Caine, a therapist who specializes in “life in transition,” knew that she needed to find a new outlet for her energies. So she dug out an old camera, went out into her garden and started photographing her flowers. In the process she not only became a skilled photographer who now sells her flora and fauna photos but also expanded her counseling into Empty Nest Support Services.

Thanks to the aging cohort of baby boomers, empty nest has become a hot topic, with a Pinterest page, discussions on College Confidential and home remodeling sites, and even cooking lessons.  Indeed a recent survey of empty-nest baby boomers found that more than 90 percent were happy to have more “me” time—and money–to spend time with spouses, go on vacations, and socialize. A majority also cited lower grocery bills and no longer having to go to school functions as the upside.

That said, emptying the nest doesn’t happen all at once and the process—and the ensuing emotions—can extend over a period of years from when the oldest child departs, changing the family dynamic, to when the youngest graduates college, often leaving a bittersweet feeling, and then onto work, love, marriage and the baby carriage!

For help in navigating these different stages of empty nesting, we called Ms. Caine and asked her to share  wisdom gained from counseling dozens of women in both her private practice and at retreats.

Q. Some parents think that empty nest syndrome occurs when you return from the college drop off to that suddenly quiet house but it’s really an ongoing process? 

A. Dropping them off the college is just the beginning; you’re not done with the changes. Your role as a parent shifts over and over starting with then  through when they graduate and start a career and come home less. The next phase is when they marry and you become an in-law—not an outlaw, although it may feel like it.  And then the next stage is when you become granny or nanny or babysitter.

Q. Those are a lot of stages to navigate.  The one that seems most unexpected is college graduation.  You’d think we would be happy with no more tuition payments, yet parents  feel a sense of loss. 

A. College is often a repeat of the relationship you had with your children in  high school: You are still wanted for when they bring their friends home for school breaks, for your sofa, your home cooking, and their bedroom for summers.  It’s college graduation that’s the start of the next stage.   Post college is all about launching their careers. It’s all about their career, not your career; it’s all about their calendar, not your calendar. You might see your child much less; he might be working globally; he’s making his own money; he’s more much independent so you are needed less and as his life becomes fuller, and  you feel that loss.

Q. These stages of change mean constant reinvention of our roles as parents.  Your advice is blunt: If you want an adult relationship then you need to follow their lead.

A. You are no longer the leader; it’s now your kids who are leading you.  I urge parents to be both curious and compassionate. Be a listener with them, not the talker.  Don’t automatically fill in the blanks.  If they are asking advice, try to get their opinion first.  Be present in the moment when talking to them.

Q. On the flip side, you note that the nest leave-taking is a perfect time to look inward and discover your own long-lost passions.

A. My daughter and I were very close, she’s an only child, and when she left that’s when I discovered that I loved photography. I had no idea that would happen. But I didn’t have to make oatmeal or whole grain toast or car pool so I went into the garden every morning and started taking photos. I became good at it and my friends encouraged me to start selling them and I did. Another thing I started writing which I really hadn’t done since the third grade.  With my daughter gone I was able to go to a summer writer’s program.  I even made two new best friends there, after age 50.

My message to other moms experiencing empty nest feelings is to find the  parts of you that went dormant during all those years hands-on parenting.  Go dig in the dirt and find your dormant self, and from that discovery pull up new resources and interests.

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