The Burdens and Blessings of an Empty Nest
Loneliness, loss of a sense of purpose, feeling old ... OR ... (insert head spin here) more FREEDOM
Ouch! That sounds rather unmotherly and selfish, doesn't it? So some may think, but I say, "YAHOO!!"
Empty nest syndrome. Wikipedia, the closest thing we have to the wisely practical but unfortunately fictional Encyclopedia Galactica, defines empty nest syndrome as "a feeling of grief and loneliness parents may feel when their children move out of the family home, such as to live on their own or to attend a college or university. It is not a clinical condition."
Ya think? No one has ever perished from it, though I know quite a few parents (mostly moms) who suffer from it. Not coincidentally, these are often the same moms who used to hang out at their children's preschool long after they'd dropped off their kids, many of whom were pretty eager to do something on their own that didn't involve mom. The same moms who teared up when their children began elementary school, went off to summer camp, or took off for the evening with their friends in the family car.
OK, I'm with them on that last one. That's why the powers that be invented electronic trackers, Life360, and nose and glasses disguises. Heh heh heh.
Like anything, seeing your kids off to a new, more independent stage in life takes some parental adjustment.
The empty nest - a major change in family dynamics. Do you welcome or mourn it?
"Heave ho, out you go"
I'm a pretty independent sort. I come from a very independent, individualistic, and loudly opinionated crowd. I usually keep my mouth closed, except when I have something profoundly wise and insightful to share (which I think is more often the case than those around me - namely, my kids - do). I've raised my kids to be independent, free-thinking adults, capable of making their own decisions and accepting the results. Or consequences of their actions (most of which, I claim, came about because they refused to listen to the wisdom of their mother...).
So when they each turned 18, they were treated as the young adults they'd become. Still with a lot to learn - hey, the pre-frontal cortex that governs rationale thinking and intelligent decision-making doesn't fully mature until age 25 - but newly capable of living independently from mom and dad.
That whole "heave ho, out you go" thing? Hey, relax, just being funny. We don't go that far. Tragically, there are way too many awful stories of parents who do, throwing their kids and their belongings out on the street when they hit the magic 18. Rather my husband and I believe in preparing our kids for each stage of independence, giving them more responsibility as they grow and demonstrate their abilities to handle them. Though often not as fast as they'd like. Patience, young grasshopper.
It impacts the entire family when the kids start leaving the nest. Even if they do return occasionally for holidays, school vacations, and laundry services. The family dynamic changed when our first child went off to college; it'll definitely be altered when our last one takes off in a few weeks.
The burden on the heart and - let's be honest - the wallet
This change in the family dynamic hits hardest emotionally.
I began my journey as a mom 25 years ago when our son was born. Really, though, it I should say it started about a year earlier, because pregnancy itself changed everything, and not just physically:
Changing the way we thought of ourselves, from a couple to a family
Moving the health and welfare of the baby to our #1 priority
Rethinking my career, which required long hours and travel.
Twenty-five years is a good chunk of time in which the needs of the kids moved front and center. School, sports, activities, and all the wonderful and frustrating moments that go along with raising them. No matter how much independence they enjoyed while they were still at home, there's an emptiness left behind when they truly fly the nest. You emotionally never go back from being a family to just a couple. Twenty-five years of photos - and college tuition, room and board, etc. - serve as a constant reminder.
Ah, yes, they may be gone, but their expenses are still with us.
The blessing, also known as the happy dance of freedom
The flip side, the one I choose to embrace, is two-fold:
Reconnecting with my husband as a couple primarily focused just on each other
REALLY being able to spend more time on my acting, voice over, and speaking career
Either way you look at it, it's tacit permission (after 25 years) to go back to my rather self-centered ways. Kinda sorta.
The nice thing about being an empty-nester is the chance to spend quiet 1:1 time with your spouse, travel during the school year when crowds and prices are both down, and have more time doing fun and interesting things vs. the humdrum menial household chores that support actively raising a family. In my experience, that's been a lot of cooking, cleaning, laundry, and driving the mom taxi.
It's also the time to focus on what YOU really enjoy doing. Or to concentrate more fully on your career or other responsibilities. Personally, I'm really looking forward to investing more time and energy to this business I love. More uninterrupted time to work for my voice over clients, to travel farther afield for film and TV bookings, and to expand my public speaking engagements. It's also more time to reconnect with old friends, cultivate new ones, and become more fully involved within my community. I enjoy meeting people, and it's easier to network at business breakfast meetings when you don't have to devote your mornings to corralling your kids, feeding them, and seeing them off to school.
Your experience as an empty-nester will be affected by WHEN it happens in your life, too.
Timing and attitude are everything
Your experience as an empty-nester will be affected by WHEN it happens in your life, too. Are you in the heyday of your career? Or are you and/or your partner nearing or in retirement? This change in family dynamics can ease your responsibilities and give you greater freedom to pursue your interests. It can also double-down on a sense of endings, loss of identity, and lack of purpose.
Your temperament and outlook on life - as an optimist, pessimist, or realist - will also influence your reactions. Do you welcome or mourn the change? Maybe a little of both? And how easily do you move on to the next stage of your life, however you choose to define it?
And if you're caring for elderly parents, well, then it may not feel like much has changed, except for the generation receiving the care.
We're in a mix of all of the above. While my husband is retired, I'm still full steam ahead in what I'm doing and have no intention of slowing down. And while his parents are long gone, mine are getting up there in age and will eventually need more time and attention. I'm looking forward to the empty nest for all the reasons I gave earlier, but my husband is a bit more conflicted. Truthfully, we're both a little wistful and I find myself looking at my kids' baby pictures more often.
Laura's Quick Tips
Expect to experience both the sweet and sour when your last child leaves home for college or independent living
Your kids will always be with you in your heart, even if they do try to stick you with their dirty laundry
Enjoy the opportunity to focus more on yourself for a change: interests, hobbies, your work ... your freedom!
Your feelings about the empty nest can't help but be influenced by the time in your life you experience it. Use them to propel you into the next stage of your life.
I like to think that nothing's over until we're permanently horizontal. Every stage in life holds the seeds for the next one. Even if you're the parent of an itty-bitty, there'll come the day when your child will be ready to strike out on his own. What are your plans for yourself then?