Sooner or later, and I am not sure which of the two is better, every parent faces the prospect of an empty nest. This new beginning can impact us in such a strong way that modern society recognizes this phenomenon as an “empty nest syndrome”. It often coincides with other changes in our body and life, which can make it a bit more complicated to distinguish.
What is the Empty Nest Syndrome?
Even though the word syndrome sounds serious, this is not a clinical diagnosis – empty nest syndrome refers to a commonly experienced set of feelings during the period of family transition, after children leave home for extended periods of time, either to study or to live independently. The syndrome can affect not only parents, but also the remaining siblings and can disrupt the normal family dynamics.
How The Empty Nest Syndrome Manifests
Even though it is called a “syndrome” it is far from being a debilitating ailment, in most cases. It is also easy to recognize as it is triggered by a big change in life – a child leaving home. Most frequently, it manifests as grief and sadness, but it can deepen into depression. Many people experience the feelings of loneliness, loss of purpose, lack of companionship that we are used to. The symptoms are more often experienced by mothers, but fathers also get empty nest syndrome.
Just like any transition in life, this big of change can’t be completely painless and requires adjustment. Some people handled it better than others. The symptoms are often very strong in the very beginning but fade out over time. However, if it becomes impossible to recover, if the sadness is too long and deep that it starts affecting normal life, professional help may be required.
Can you prepare for it and how?
It would be great to say “yes, of course you can”. Unfortunately, most parents say that, even though you have done a lot of emotional, mental and actual work to adjust to the new situation, you can never really be completely ready for all of the little things that come with your children leaving home.
And how do you actually prepare for your child’s independence? The good news is: you always are doing this, as it is an integral part of parenting. The bad news is, you may never prepare enough. Raising children is an exercise in letting go, gradually and slowly. We may not think about this when they are toddlers, but every step that we help them take towards doing things on their own is a step towards the parting that inevitably comes later in life.
However, while we may be very happy that our child can eat on their own because we do not need to do the task of feeding them, finding yourself suddenly in a home where they do not actually live anymore is a different story altogether.
In modern times we have fewer and fewer rituals of initiation other than celebrating birthdays. Even though many of the old initiation traditions seem utterly barbaric, they served the purpose of formally granting the younger members of community an adult status. Nowadays the border between childhood and adulthood is blurrier and thicker than ever before. We cannot blame parents for not being able to draw a clear line at the exact point when their children became adults. Empty nest is often the period when acceptance of this fact is imminent.
The way to prepare for the empty nest is not a checklist of tasks. Instead it is a slow way of adjusting to the imminent change. Some of the things to be aware of while raising children and which can help you when the nest becomes empty are:
- Being aware that the time we have together is precious, and using it to enjoy the presence of our children is essential and prevents regret later on when they delve into independence.
- Creating strong bonds and healthy family closeness is key for keeping the needed connection after the children leave.
- Allow for the shifting of roles: your young adult is probably more ready to be independent that you think them to be. Grant them the adult place in your family dynamics.
- One of the difficult things to do is to not get lost in being a parent and keeping own space, relationships and interests alive. This way, the loss does not feel complete and absolute. Parents who lose themselves in parenting have a harder time adjusting to the absence, as they have focused all their emotional energy on children alone.
- Accept that you may react completely differently to this new situation than you initially anticipated. We cannot know ahead of time what sort of parents will be in any given situation.
Enjoy your new situation
It may sound cynical to say that you should be happy about your child leaving home when your heart is literally torn with sorrow, but the sooner you start organizing your life the better it will be in the long run. Embrace the new stage of your life and enjoy the new relationship with your child. True, it is easier said than done, but parenting is never easy, even when it is slowly winding to the end.
And be proud: you have a raised a human being who is now becoming independent – if this isn’t a reason to celebrate, I do not know what is.
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