By Jean Hailes nurse educator Rhonda Garad
I remember listening to a friend of my grandmother’s say that when her seven children had all grown up and finally ‘flown the coup’, that she turned to her husband of 30 years and said ‘Who are you?”
My Grandmother and her friend laughed themselves into hysteria over that one, but I didn’t really get the joke. I asked my grandmother later why her friend wouldn’t be more pleased that finally after all those years of hard work raising kids that she could now have a rest; she replied that having kids was what life was about for her.
What is the ‘empty nest’ syndrome?
The ‘empty nest syndrome’ refers to the grief parents may feel when their child (or children) moves out of home. When parents have spent a big part of their lives raising children, it can be very hard when they grow up and move out of the home. This phase of life can trigger feelings of despair or depression, or the ‘empty nest’ syndrome. Women tend to experience this more than men because they have usually played the main role in raising children. Also, traditional cultural roles and expectations of women can make this more difficult.
Many parents, fathers included, can express surprise at the sense of sadness that they feel because they have dreamt for so long of the time when they would be free to pursue their own interests – only to find that they seem to be stuck with a sense of loss and grieving.
Humourist Emma Bombeck says of this stage of life:
“When mothers talk about the depression of the empty nest, they’re not mourning the passing of all those wet towels on the floor, or the music that numbs your teeth, or even the bottle of capless shampoo dribbling down the shower drain. 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.”
Psychologists would agree with Erma that a large component of the sadness associated with the empty nest syndrome is related to the change in the parenting role, particularly if it is experienced as loss.
Jean Hailes psychologist Dr Mandy Deeks found the moving out of home of her first son a very difficult time.
“I still had two other children at home, but it was something about the sadness of not being part of his everyday life that I found really hard. I would look at his room that had been filled with all of him; his things, his noise, his smell and then all of a sudden there was this emptiness, this stillness.”
Dr Deeks says that women whose identity is closely linked to the parenting role and who may not have other fulfilling roles in their lives may struggle the most. She also says that it is normal to try to hang on to that parenting relationship a little longer, even in slightly absurd ways;
“I remember I would buy things for my son, like brooms and dish cloths, and I was particularly obsessed about storage items like Tupperware containers. In hindsight I think I just wanted to keep some connection with him, and the lovely thing was that I think he sensed that too and would give me the most beautiful hugs. I remember that the hunger I felt for his presence took a while to lessen.”
It may take between 18 months and two years to make the successful transition through this time and beyond the sense of grieving.
“My son and I had to work at creating a new relationship, with him as an independent adult who did not need me to check that he had clean clothes or ask what time he would be home.”
Dr Deeks also says that for some women this time coincides with menopause, and therefore it may be hard to work out what is really going on. For these women it can be a double grieving; for the loss of the parenting role and the loss of a sense of themselves as women. This time can also put pressure on marriages or partnerships, particularly if the partnership has not been nurtured along the way.
She says it is important to talk through feelings and needs so that you can work out what is really happening. It is a good time to ask yourself some hard questions such as:
- What am I feeling?
- What roles do I have?
- What roles do I want to have in my life?
- What gives me meaning in my life?
Dr Deeks says it is important to take the time to consider these questions either by yourself or with a psychologist. This time can become some the best years of your life but it is important to acknowledge your feelings and understand that there may be a time before you are really ready – and able – to let go of your children and of the parenting role.
It can be helpful to talk with a psychologist at this time if you are struggling, and you might only need a session or two.
The most important thing is to be kind to yourself and if you feel sad it is helpful to acknowledge your feelings and reflect on them rather than fight them. Try to do things that nurture you and give you a new lease of life.
Things to try when your children leave home:
- Take up a hobby
- Go away for weekends with partners or friends
- Join a group or exercise class
- Learn a new skill, language or instrument
- Look up old friends
- Try renovating projects around the house
- Plant a vegetable or herb garden
Try any of these, or make your own list of activities, hobbies and things to keep you busy and help you find a new passion or meaning in your life.