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The Empty Nest 2.0

The great migration to college begins this week.  Bed, Bath and Beyond has been sacked and the booty loaded in the car, so heavily weighted down that the back bumper practically scrapes the ground.  Move-in day dawns, inevitably hot and humid, with all the “stuff” needing to be carried up at least three flights of stairs.  That’s the easy part.

The hard part is heading home, with tears and tissues, and composing yourself just in time to open the front door to the dreaded empty nest.  Tears and tissues, again!  Those feelings of loss can linger for weeks and sometimes months.  The upbeat advice from books and articles–take up the tango, cavort with your husband in every room in the house, and to find a new hobby too–often doesn’t fill the emptiness.

The empty nest syndrome is not limited to one “type” of mother. Stay-at home moms as well as working moms experience “the same feelings of profound sense of loss that might make them vulnerable to depression, alcoholism, identity crisis and marital conflicts,” finds the Mayo Clinic.

Even when there are other children still at home, ENS can strike, and not only parents.  My daughter recently shared that when my oldest son left for college, she cried for days while setting the dinner table for four rather than five. The pattern of family life, shaped over 18 or so years, is irrevocably changed when the first leaves and then altered again with each subsequent departure.  Still, for many moms, the hardest parting is when the youngest leaves and the nest becomes museum-like in both neatness and noise levels.  We face the harsh reality that our child-rearing days are over, and that means we are getting older. There’s no more figurative “Baby on Board.” More like “aging Baby Boomer,” and we are forced to confront loss as both as individuals and as parents.  “I’ve been demoted to part-time work. Soon I will attain emerita status.  This stinks,” author Anna Quindlen wrote in “The Empty Nest: 31 Parents Tell the Truth About Relationships, Love, and Freedom After the Kids Fly the Coop.”

Misery loves company as evidenced by the dozen or so titles on Amazon from “The Empty Nest: When Children Leave Home,” to “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Empty Nesters: 101 Stories about Surviving and Thriving When the Kids Leave Home,” to “Empty Nest: Discovering New Purpose, Passion & Your Next Great Adventure,” and even “10 Great Dates for Empty Nesters.

Many offer similar advice which can be summed up as:

  • Refocus your life; it’s your time to find or rediscover your talents and interests and start experimenting with them.
  • Reconnect with your husband whether it’s with quiet conversations at dinner (most likely be about the ‘kids”) or enjoying uninterrupted time together doing whatever strikes your fancy.
  • Talk to others who are experiencing the same emotions, and if need be, seek a support group or professional advice.

Some of these books were written pre-recession, with the notion that once they kids leave, they stay away.  Not so anymore. Just when you get used to the quiet—and experts estimate that the adjustment can take from 18 months to two years—the kids are boomerang back. About 36 percent of young adults ages 18 to 31 were living in their parents’ home in 2012, the highest number in more than 40 years, found a new Pew Research Center study.

Still, whether the children return or not, we need to acknowledge that empty nest feelings of grief and loss are real and are yet another ‘trauma of everyday life” as psychiatrist and author Mark Epstein describes them.  In a New York Times article, he writes: “While we are accustomed to thinking of trauma as the inevitable result of a major cataclysm, daily life is filled with endless little traumas. Things break. People hurt our feelings. Ticks carry Lyme disease. Pets die. Friends get sick and even die.…The traumatic underpinnings of life are not specific to any generation. The first day of school and the first day in an assisted-living facility are remarkably similar. Separation and loss touch everyone.”

So remember, while you are dealing with the empty nest your adult child is also grappling with his or her own life changes whether it’s the bizarre freshman roommate or the slap-in-the-face reality of senior year.  You are still needed, not in the same way as at home, but in a new, more adult relationship. You don’t leave them at the dorm never to connect again.

My own nest emptied completely two years ago this fall, and then filled again the following spring when my daughter, like so many other college grads, moved home while looking for her first job. Now she’s gone again, living hundreds of miles away. A friend asked if I miss her terribly. Of course I do, and but it helps to know she’s at the right place for this time in her life. What helps even more is that I’ve gotten used to the comings and goings of three adult children, as have most of my contemporaries with the 20- and 30-something children.  The emptying and occasionally filling again of the nest becomes the new normal. Routines adjust; work and play expand and contract as needed. But we make the (sometimes monumental) effort to create new traditions, to coordinate vacations so everyone overlaps at least for a few days, to plan family events six months in advance as well as turning on a dime for them.

And what also helps immeasurably is that we baby boomer parents have something our own parents never even imagined: technology to ease the pain of separation. Texting, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, phone calls, online sharing photos, articles, ideas, recipes, keep us closely connected to our children even when they have long left the family home.  This is not your parents’ empty nest!


This piece was published at the Huffington Post: http://huff.to/14cUahX

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  • Ruth Nemzoff August 27, 2013, 10:40 am

    Empty nest or freedom to fly? The choice is yours. Ruth Nemzoff, author of Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children.

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