Empty Nest Parents

The Empty Nest Syndrome and What to Do Next

What a joy it is as parents to see our young adults learn to spread their wings and fly into adulthood! We celebrate their moves to college or the military; we celebrate their marriages or their cross-country moves for that perfect job. Yet after those big transitions, parents are left with a feeling of emptiness at home—or as many have dubbed it, the “empty nest.” We sit in an unfamiliar place.

Empty nest syndrome is something all parents are likely to face. For many, it will it be a time not only of joy and celebration of launching our son or daughter into adulthood, but also of sadness, melancholy and distress. Empty Nest Syndrome is informally defined as a saddened state, a feeling of loneliness or loss we feel after what we’ve done and known for 18 or so years suddenly changes. From the time they were born, we’ve watched our children grow into independence. We’ve seen them lift their heads, hold their bottles and take their first steps. We’ve encouraged that independence every step of the way. Yet when that independence sees them take flight, the letting-go process can be difficult and painful. For some parents, being separated becomes consuming and extreme grief and depression set in. Even months later, they find themselves mourning the loss instead of engaging in normal everyday activities.

Empty Nest Syndrome is most commonly experienced by mothers. It often happens at the same time as menopause, which wreaks its own havoc on our emotions and bodies. This end of our reproductive years accompanied by a child leaving home can be especially traumatic for a woman whose identity has been largely shaped by her role as mother.

We spend so much time and energy taking care of our children for many years that when they’re gone, we’re not sure what to do anymore. Any major life change calls for us to make adjustments. It may take only a few days to get used to the loss of chaos and adjust to the new quietness and the empty space at the dining room table. We find ourselves needing to recreate things: from those as simple as our daily routine to as complex as our own self-identity. As a busy mom, there were many times I wished for a few days of peace and quiet—with no need to be “taxi-mom” or “the cleaning genie” or “chef.” That time finally came a couple of years ago, and suddenly, I didn’t know what to do! I felt lost.

There IS good news! In a survey of approximately 1,100 mothers, only 10 percent of those who had experienced the transition of an empty nest reported acute loneliness or having trouble adjusting to the change. In the same survey, more than 25 percent of mothers said that their favorite stage of motherhood was, in fact, the one in which their children no longer lived at home. Research is showing that this time can also offer parents many benefits—that maybe the empty nest isn’t so empty after all. Our young adult children have brave new lives to forge, and we have new freedom.

We have many new opportunities when our children leave home:

  • We can reconnect with our partners. When Sara Gorchoff, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at UC Berkeley, and colleagues tracked marital changes in 123 women from their 40s to their early 60s, they found that empty nesters reported greater satisfaction with their partners than did mothers with children at home.
  • The empty nest stage becomes a time to recreate ourselves. We can rekindle friendships, finally take that art class or volunteer in our community or church—things we might not have had time for previously.
  • Some moms take this new freedom to embark on a new career or engage in other ways of living. We discover the confidence and rich well-being that can blossom with this freedom.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that
survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”
—Charles Darwin

Change, whether it includes joy or a challenge, is frightening. Our roles with our children are changing. Sure, we’re still a family, but the ways we live out those roles are going to be very different. We have a chance to create new traditions or adapt old ones. My daughter and I take time for a lunch date once a month. It’s so much fun to connect with her in this new way: as two adult friends.

What can you do?

  • Keep in touch. You can continue to be close to your children, even when you live apart. Make an effort to maintain regular contact through visits, phone calls, emails, texts or video chats.
  • Stay positive. Notice the exciting things they are doing and rejoice with them. Spend time doing the things you enjoy doing, and maybe explore new opportunities for fun.
  • Be active. We know it’s important to our physical health to be exercising, but it’s just as important for our emotional health.
  • Laugh often. The old adage, “Laughter is the best medicine,” is still true.
  • Seek support. There’s nothing wrong with consulting your doctor, your minister or a mental health provider if you’re having a difficult time adjusting to the empty nest. Lean on a friend or loved one.

We have a choice to make at this stage of life: Do we take the path of falling into that sadness and slide into an inconsequential old age? Do we become ole’ couch potatoes? Or do we reinvent and reinvigorate ourselves—by looking forward to our grandchildren, taking steps in new directions and visiting new places where our children have landed?