I let out a startled yelp and leapt back from the changing table. The nursing sister hurried over, laughing as she saw what had happened. My newborn son, just a few hours old, had “christened” his mother (me) in the hospital nursery! My firstborn is a daughter, so I had no idea that baby boys react to the cold air in that way when their diaper is removed:)
Today, I watched that boy walk through the international check-in counter at the airport and leave for a foreign country for a year to go and teach English. Although I still have my two girls at home, I am feeling the effects of the empty nest syndrome.
What is empty nest syndrome?
If you have been a parent and have spent significant time raising children, the empty nest will become a reality for you sooner or later! Empty nest syndrome refers to the sense of sadness, emptiness and grief that many parents feel when their children grow up and leave home.
After years of having your child or children in the house, it can be quite a shock when they leave home for college, move to another town to work, go abroad or move out to get married. After all the years of having them under your roof, providing for them, directing their lives and schedules (younger children), the family meals and noise, laughter and their friends coming over, the house can suddenly seem empty and lifeless.
Types of Empty Nest
Temporary Empty Nest
Over the years, as your children were growing up, you may have experienced a sort of “temporary” empty nest from time to time, if they attended a summer camp, went on holiday with friends or had extended sleep overs with their friends. Perhaps you really missed them then, and could not wait for them to return, or perhaps it was a little time for yourself to recharge and enjoy?
If you allowed your children to do those activities, you have had some small measure of the empty nest, particularly if your children were all away at the same time. It allowed you to cut the apron strings a little at a time.
This type of empty nest is doable for most parents, as you know your children are soon coming back. It means a temporary change of routine, and a quiet house for a short while.
Phased Empty Nest
You may experience a phased empty nest when you have several children. The eldest finishes school and moves out to college but you may still have other children in the house. Although you miss your firstborn, you are still busy with your younger children, and you learn, after a time of adjustment, to move on with your daily life.
You keep in touch with your eldest, and it hurts you when they are homesick or having trouble with adjusting to their independence. As time goes by, both you and the fledgling adult child learn to adjust and cope in your new situation.
It becomes a little more bearable if you get to see your child a few times a year, for vacation time or semester breaks. They still have a bedroom in your home and most of their stuff is still there. It is difficult for you when they go back to college, but you learn to look forward to a few weeks or months time when they will be back.
It is more difficult if, as in my situation, when you know that you will not see that child for a year or more, and chances are that they will never live at home again. It’s an ending of sorts.
Total Empty Nest
As time goes by, and one by one, your children grow up and leave school and make decisions about what to do with their lives, you inch closer to the total empty nest. Your nest continues to empty out, until your last little “duckling” has matured and flown away to start their grand new adventure called life!
This is devasting to many parents, particularly mothers who have been intricately involved in their children’s lives from before birth. Your house feels empty, too quiet and too big! Your life may seem empty without your children to care for for. If you are single, the quietness and loneliness is even more difficult.
Factors affecting the severity of the empty nest
Almost all mothers will be affected in some measure by empty nest syndrome. Some are able to adjust quite quickly, but for other moms, it’s a painful, painful thing:(
Several factors will influence how difficult you find the empty nest phase of your life:
Relationships and closeness of the family
Your family structure and the closeness of your relationship with all your children plays a definite part. If you were a very hands-on mother, involved in your children’s everyday lives, it will be a difficult transition. No more early morning chats over coffee with your firstborn, no more taking your youngest to school or to the dentist, or sports practise. Those activities which were sometimes a pain in the neck, will now be missed!
If your children were doing a lot for themselves during high school, and your involvement started lessening then, it may be slightly easier for you. Some children are quite independent from a young age and don’t want their mother fussing over them:)
Your life satisfaction and phase of life
- Where are you in your life when the empty nest is happening?
- Are you going through menopause, or are you not there yet?
- Do you have a career which is going well – are you productive in other ways?
- How happy are you with your life aside from the children growing up and leaving?
All of those questions have an impact on the severity of your empty nest syndrome. If you don’t have a job, or other outside interests, it may seem like your life’s purpose is gone.
Having a job or something to fill your time
If you have devoted your time, attention and energy on raising your children and have no outside job, hobby or even volunteer work, you will feel the empty nest more keenly. Everything you have filled your time with before is now gone! This can leave you feeling totally aimless and lost.
If you are married, the state of your marriage will also determine how you transition through the empty nest syndrome. If your marriage has revolved around the children and you did not take the time to nurture your status as a couple, you may find that you have little to talk about when the children leave home. You may feel like strangers to one another.
Sadly, some marriages which are not strong, or have problems which are unresolved, seem to break down totally once the children leave. Many people have the notion of “staying together until the children leave” and midlife divorces are quite commonplace. It is particularly sad to see the end of long-term marriages where people find that their reason for staying together was the children, and once they leave home, they find no reason to stay married.
If your marriage is strong, this life transition will be a little easier to bear, and your marriage may even grow stronger as you will have more time to devote to each other!
What you can do to help yourself cope
Here are some things you can do if you’re facing, or currently struggling with the empty nest sydrome:
Give yourself permission to cry and grieve
The first step to coping with the empty nest is to acknowledge your feelings of pain and loss. You have lost the family life that you used to know. You have lost the important role of being a daily nurturer and confidante in the home. You have lost what was for many years, perhaps your major life role.
You are allowed to grieve and feel sad as you have lost something precious to you. We all grieve when we lose something we love.
The bright side is that the beloved child is just a phone call or Skype away.
Start preparing before they leave
As your children grow and become more independent, you can start to get involved in things which don’t include them. Spend more time with other adults, develop a hobby or volunteer. Encourage their independence and teach them the life skills they’ll need as an adult. That way, you will not have to worry about how they will cope once they leave home!
Develop your friendships
If you are blessed to have one or two close friendships, particularly with women in the same phase of life as you are, you have someone who understands what you’re going through. You will be a great support to each other. Meet up regularly for coffee breaks and provide some “love with skin on” to each other.
Do something you’ve always wanted to do (but never had the time)
When your children were young, your hands were full of mothering responsibilities which kept you busy. Mothers of young children very often have no time for themselves. Even as the children grow up, you may find yourself using your spare time for car-pooling, homework helping and counseling teenagers.
When your children are independent teenagers and young adults, even if they’re still at home, you can start to develop a “passion project!” Always wanted to learn French? Do it! Always wished to play the piano? Take lessons! Have you always had a dream to climb Kilimanjaro? Make an action plan, train and do it lady! Now is your chance!
Make goals to look forward to and work towards them
Following on from the Kilimanjaro example, set yourself a few exciting goals! Something that you’ve always wanted to do, that excites you:)
Now that you have the time, do this for you! Your life is not over! This could be the most exciting time of your life yet!
Go back to college (or learn something new)
If you’ve always wished that you had a college degree, now is your chance. Perhaps you never had the opportunity to study after school due to family commitments? Well, you can now!
My mother-in-law started studying at the age of 50, and 4 years later received her Bachelor of Administration degree! At that point, her two eldest sons (my husband is one of them), were out of the house, and the two youngest were in high school. She was able to use her college education in her job for a few years before she retired. Even if you don’t have a job, there is a great sense of accomplishment in hanging that degree or diploma on your wall! It is something that no one can ever take away from you!
If you like learning new things but don’t want to commit to a formal degree, there are amazing courses you can do online! You can learn a new skill (to use in your job if you have one), or learn something you are interested in just for fun.
Practise self care
- Lose that weight!
- Go for a regular facial.
- Do your nails.
- Learn how to eat healthy – learn to cook healthy meals
- Exercise regularly
- Go for health checks every year
- Look after yourself!
- Get enough rest
Looking after yourself will reduce your risk of serious health problems related to menopause and aging, such as heart disease and strokes, as well as lift your mood and prevent depression from setting in.
Build up your marriage
- Devoting the time you would have spent on the children to your husband and your marriage could transform your relationship to better than ever! You could rediscover your partner in ways long forgotten:)
- Start “dating” again and build some fun activities into your schedule.
- Remember, your husband, especially if he was a hands-on type of dad, could also be missing the children and feeling the empty nest keenly. However, society dictates that he can’t show his feelings as openly as you can.
Clear up the children’s rooms after they leave
- If your child is away at college and will be coming back home a lot, they will still want their stuff, so just tidy their room up to your satisfaction:) At last you get the chance to do this!!
- For the child who has moved out permanently (moved to another state, country, got married or moved to their own place), that space is now yours, and available to be used in another way:) Make it into your “Mama Den!” You get to exercise there, do your crafting there, blog or write, do your Bible Study or just chill!
- If however, the thought of repurposing the room just yet, and walking past your childs bedroom door upsets you, keep it closed. Once you are feeling stronger, you may have to tidy up in there for your sanity!
- You will most likely feel nostalgic doing this and even shed a few tears when you find a long-forgotten piece of artwork from kindergarten, a worn-out baseball mitt from Little League or the outgrown ballet pumps. Perhaps even an article of clothing you remember so well which did not make the cut to go to collegue, or move with your child.
- If your child is a hoarder and you are not sure if they would want to keep certain items, pack them away in the closet. When they come home on a break, ask them what they want to keep. Donate or repurpose the rest of the items. If you don’t you’ll still be finding unwanted items 10 years from now, or have extra to pack up if you ever want to move!
Downsize your home
- In our case, we are sitting with a large 5-bedroom house (we use one room as a study), and are strongly thinking of downsizing to a smaller place. Although we still have our two daughters with us, the eldest girl is making plans to move overseas for work, or find her own place, and the youngest is in her final year at school.
- We have no need for a big house like we have raised our children in. We are looking at plans of our own as to where to live and what we need for this phase of our lives. Time to fix up the house to sell so that another family can happily raise their children here.
Explore your spirituality – connect with God
- If you have never pursued your spirituality, you will find that doing so will give you peace and purpose in this phase of your life. God has a plan for you now that you have raised your children.
- Seek God in the following ways:
- Find a Bible-believing church nearby. Many have Women’s Groups and you may be able to connect with other women and even make some new friends.
- Read your Bible. If you don’t have one, it is easy to download one off the internet. You will find many fascinating things in the Bible which is filled with wisdom for daily living, and comfort for the soul!
- Pray. Ask God to reveal Himself to you as He never has before. Ask Him to give you strength and peace as you negotiate through this phase of life and He will. God loves you and will be found by you if you earnestly seek Him. (Jeremiah 29:13)
Seek help for depression
- If you find that you are so depressed that you have lost your joy in life and have no energy, seek help fast! It is common to hit a slump when you reach midlife and everything you knew about life changes. It is often hard to bear and many women need help at this time.
- Remember, you are NOT alone. There is a mighty tribe of amazing women worldwide who are going through the same thing! And you are amazing! You have successfully raised children to (young) adulthood and given them wings to fly!
- Try speaking to a close friend who has successfully transitioned through the empty nest, or is also going through this stage.
- Speak to a professional therapist if there is no one you can talk to. It can make the sun shine for you again!
Moving on and thriving after the empty nest
Remember the dreams you had before you became a mother? It’s not too late to dream again! You now have time on your hands which you did not have for years while your were nurturing your nest of young ones.
Remember, you have fulfilled an amazing purpose in this lifetime, mama! You have raised young adults who are competent and capable of spreading their wings and flying out of the nest! This is the purpose of parenting, giving our children wings to fly. We need to know that they will be okay after we’re gone – the cycle of life.
And we will be okay after they leave. A little lonely maybe, a little lost…for a while. Let the dreams of your youth see the light of day again. Find new dreams. Rediscover who you are. Be the amazing woman you were meant to be!
You can grow in this period of your life. Be the SuperMama, and then SuperGrandmama your children know you are. Fill that empty nest with all that you are and can be.
You owe it to yourself.
What is your experience of the empty nest? Was it difficult to adjust? What helped you cope?