Your Empty Nest

Date: 11/29/07

Filling Your Empty Nest

Humorist Erma Bombeck once said that empty nest parents don’t miss the work that goes along with being a parent, but rather “they’re upset because they’ve gone from supervisor of a child’s life to a spectator. It’s like being the vice president of the United States.” The day you become a spectator, you may feel it came too fast and far from ready to let your baby bird fly away into adulthood.

For some, the first 30 days of enjoying your empty nest can be an oxymoron. It’s hard to celebrate when you’re experiencing very real feelings of loss and questioning your identity. “When our kids left, there was a measure of sadness, but also a measure of trepidation,” says Sal Santonastaso, a land surveyor from Rensselaerville, NY. When his two children, Jesse and Anna, left for college, Sal and his wife, Deb, were left with many questions. He remembers thinking, “Are they going to be OK? Have I done my job well? As a land surveyor, if you make a mistake, you can make what’s called a revision. But when you raise your kids there are no revisions.”

Though you may worry about how you will move on with your life and how your kids will turn out, try to look at your first 30 days of enjoying your empty nest as an opportunity to learn about yourself, work on relationships and start a new chapter in your life.

Empty Nest Syndrome

Experts define empty nest syndrome as a collection of symptoms including sadness, loneliness and/or grief experienced by parents whose children come of age and leave home. Unfortunately, because the empty nest syndrome is not a clinical diagnosis, there are few statistics on how many people are affected by it.

While researching The Happy Empty Nest: Rediscovering Love and Success After Your Kids Leave Home, author Linda Burghardt estimated that approximately 75% of the parents she spoke to suffered from some symptoms of the empty nest syndrome, even if they denied it. “After about an hour of talking with them, many admitted that they didn’t want to talk about it—it was just too painful for them,” Burghardt remembers.

These feelings are not always the result of the last child leaving the house—they often result when the first child flies the coop. This is the first sign that your role as a parent is evolving. It’s the end of an era.

“Of course, everybody feels it when their child leaves—whether it’s the first or the last,” says Patty Heselbarth, mother of three sons and a rural letter carrier in Greenwood, IN. “It’s just more devastating with the first. It is a whole new beginning. Parents worry about them more.”

“The emotional jolt was with Andrew,” Karen Barr of Phoenix, AZ, editor and publisher of Raising Arizona Kids Magazine, says of the eldest of her two sons. “Maybe it’s because the anticipation is worse than the reality. You’re thinking, ‘My whole life is changing.’ But you don’t lose the relationship.”

Though many assume that mothers are most affected by the empty nest, fathers are affected just the same. “It just hit me when we came up to the summer cottage for vacation and the kids weren’t there,” says Brian Dickerson of Philadelphia, PA, who watched two of his children move out. “There was no one to play with or work on projects with around the cottage. It took me several days to get over it.”

The sadness and grief of the empty nest can be more easily handled during the first 30 days if feelings are acknowledged, honored and shared. “Chances are, mom and dad are going through different emotions and feelings,” says personal and business coach, Rachelle Disbennett-Lee, host of the Denver radio show, “Live the Day with Coach Lee.” “Understanding how each is feeling about the transition will allow parents to support one another.”

Try on New Hats

Aside from the emotional surge you may feel during the first 30 days of an empty nest, you may also question your identity. A change in role can be especially challenging for full-time mothers who now wonder, “If I am not a mom, then who am I?”

Take some time to explore how your role will change now that the kids are gone. You don’t need to attend to their every need anymore, so how often will you be in touch? How will you advise them on major life decisions? Think about how your parenting will change now that your children are adults.

Some parents may be thrilled to be on their own again. Patty says that when her boys left home, she got her identity back. “I wasn’t Mike’s mom or John’s mom,” she recalls. “I was Patty. It felt wonderful.”

This may also be a time of examination when it comes to your career. Recent research from Cornell University shows that a third of all baby boomers (the generation currently most likely to experience empty nest syndrome) are planning a second career, and many of them are likely to do it once the kids have grown.

Career evaluations may be quite different for moms and dads who are dealing with an empty nest. Fathers are usually at the peak of their careers, beginning to focus more on home life and retirement. Mothers who were generally more responsible for the kids now become more expansive, wanting to go back to school for degrees, developing careers or starting their own businesses.

“Women tend to have this late-in-life energy,” says Burghardt, “so looking at roles can be very freeing.” She suggests sitting down with your partner or spouse—possibly with a glass of wine in hand—and toasting your successful parenting while discussing new career opportunities.

If you’re not prepared to make a career or job change at this point, you may benefit from focusing on your current job. Sal and his wife, Deb, were able to throw themselves into their land surveying business once their kids moved out, which strengthened their marriage. “I am closer to my wife than ever,” says Sal. “Our world doesn’t revolve around the kids anymore.”

Karen was also able to continue her work as an editor when her kids left home, which kept her occupied and distracted. “I had mothers come up to me and tell me how lucky I was to have the magazine because it gave me a structure,” she says. “I [already] had an identity outside the kids.”

If your children have just recently left the house, Disbennett-Lee advises against jumping into anything too quickly. “Don’t rush into anything, join something or sign up for a long-term commitment,” she says. “The first month is a great time to be in the silence, go within and see what it is you would really like to do now that you have the opportunity.”

Rekindle Your Romance

Now that you have an empty nest, you may feel you hardly know the man or woman sleeping next to you. After years of discussing your children’s schedules and school experiences, you may have little to talk about with your partner or spouse.

For Netta Dickerson, a neonatal nurse practitioner in Philadelphia, sitting down to dinner one night made her realize that life with her husband, Brian, was about to change forever. “For so many, many years, four of us for dinner was the typical event,” she says. “Suddenly, I realized that four for dinner would never be typical again. Without the kids as a buffer, I wondered how we would get along.”

With many Americans living until 80 or beyond, an empty nest at 50 or even older probably means spending as much time as a couple as within a family unit. Spend the first 30 days of your empty nest improving this relationship. Imagine you’re dating again—talk, joke, go on dates and spend more time being intimate. Rediscover the spark that got you two together in the first place.

“At first,” Brian admits, “there were long periods of silence.”

“As we settled into our daily routine, we began reconnecting and making meals together without worrying whether our daughter, Sarah, would eat it or not,” Netta recalls. “We remade the house to be our own.”

Patty and her husband experienced this same reconnection. “It’s like turning back the clock,” she says. “Bill and I are back to the dating part of our relationship again.”

Single parents have a tougher challenge when their kids leave home. “The hardest thing for me was there was nobody to share the experience and the sadness with,” says Mary McNamara, an artist and single mother of two sons in Schenectady, NY. Single parents should strive to pull themselves out of isolation by reconnecting with family and friends or seeking out support groups to share their feelings.

Don’t Suffer the Empty Nest in Silence

In the past, you probably said things like, “I’ll take that salsa class when I have time,” or “The kids have soccer practice; I’ll work on that painting when I have time.” Well, now is the time.

When your house gets uncomfortably silent, dive into an activity you always wished you had time to do. Pursue creative interests like playing the piano, repairing clocks, ballroom dancing or learning a foreign language. Think of this as an opportunity to reclaim your passions or discover new ones. You may also want to use this time to volunteer, suggests Burghardt, as it allows you to fulfill your need to help others.

Kathy and Greg Specks found that staying busy was a critical aspect of adjusting to an empty nest. Greg works as an English teacher, but he also plays gigs in a zydeco band on the weekends. Kathy joined a gym and enrolled in a master’s degree program. Both agreed that these activities kept them from dwelling on the sadness of their empty nest. “You need to have your own life—one that makes you want to get up in the morning,” Greg says.

While you’re out and about doing fun things, try to make some new friends. You may have had other parents to talk to when the kids were around, but that social network may have fallen apart as your kids grew older. “Dan had major withdrawal not having the boys’ sports events to go to where he could see friends,” says Karen.

Make a conscious effort to combat this social loneliness and reconnect with friends and family. Invite them over for dinner or out to see a movie. Your friends will likely ask about your kids, giving you an easy opening to talk about how you’re handling the situation. These friends will be good company for the quiet times and give you some valuable perspective on your empty nest.

“Make time to have conversations with your friends about how the empty nest will change the friendship,” says Disbennett-Lee. Whether you are a single parent or part of a couple, she also suggests telling your friends that you are interested in getting out there and meeting other people. This could lead to additional connections and even a prospective partner.

Avoid spending your time focused on when your children will call or be home again. Getting stuck there prevents healing and growth from occurring. The truth is, if you’ve parented your children lovingly and caringly, they’ll always be home for vacations and holidays—and maybe even for an “extended stay” until they get on their feet. Like you, your children will feel the need to reconnect.

What may seem like a splitting apart of your family now will most likely result in the opposite. “The bottom line,” says Sal, “is that their sense of family is very strong. It was the best thing that happened, having them move away. It taught them that family means something.”