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.

A young father is lying on a carpet next to his infant son, each grinning happily at the other.
Any man can be a father, but it takes someone special to be a daddy.

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.