I remember when my oldest child left for college, a person said to me that our children are only lent to us. That is so true. Deep in our hearts we know that, yet choose not to dwell upon it until it comes to our door. When the last child flies the nest so to speak, parents can find themselves as good as redundant. The individual roles they played over many years are now relinquished and what is known as role-confusion can set in. What next? Where do we go from here?
When we become parents for the first time, life is both exciting and challenging. Thankfully, we gradually adapt to our new roles and enjoy those precious moments as we experience our children grow and develop their own unique personalities. Parenting can bring many different challenges, but one of the most difficult is probably trying to adjust to life when the last child leaves home. Nothing prepares you for either stage, but part of being human is our amazing ability to adjust to ever changing circumstances and getting on with life.
“The biggest change for me as a mom was realising I needed to put someone else before me, now the hardest part about the empty nest is learning to put myself first.” (Author unknown)
What to expect
What can parents expect when they find themselves as part of the “Empty Nesters Group”?
Grief: We grieve following loss. It is the price we pay for love. The silence in the house can be deafening. As each parent had their own individual relationship with their children, there will be both differences and similarities in how they experience the sadness and loneliness that comes along. Being able to communicate effectively and give each other space and empathy as they gradually adjust to this new phase of their lives can make the transition a little easier. Grief, including empty nest syndrome (ENS), is not gender based, it affects us all.
Relationships: If the relationship was not strong prior to the last child leaving home, it is quite likely that the couple will experience a lot of difficulties as they no longer have the distraction of the children to camouflage their situation. Reach out and seek support if this is happening for you.
Other factors that may compound ENS include menopause, old age, caring for elderly parents or an elderly spouse, widowhood / widowerhood. Retirement usually happens around this time as well. Retirement brings with it the loss of another familiar role, which was strongly linked to our identity.
Whilst ENS affects both parents, mothers seem to be more deeply affected by the reality of their last child leaving home and becoming independent. It is my belief that psychologically, the umbilical cord is never cut.
Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development consists of eight stages, the fifth being identity v role confusion, stating that this occurs during adolescence. Adolescents are making the transition from childhood to adulthood and can be unsure of who they are as they eventually develop a sense of self. It would seem to me that parents, especially mothers, may re-experience this stage as they try to make sense of their life as a now “redundant parent”. It can take a while to adapt to not being needed by their children anymore and a sense of sadness and confusion can remain for some time. Having many extra hours of time on their hands can feel overwhelming for a while until they learn to embrace the freedom that comes with being an empty nester.
How people experience ENS varies from person to person. Attitude plays a role, as does one’s ability to be open to change and facing new challenges.
I wrote recently here about disenfranchised or silent grief. Empty nest syndrome can easily fall into this category as people are expected to feel grateful at how well their children are getting on, and see them leaving home as a normal part of life, a time to enjoy one’s freedom and independence all over again.
Eat well, exercise regularly, and get out in nature
Parents tend to put self-care way down at the bottom of their “to do list”. Now it is time to put yourself back up there and do nice things for you. Remember you are “Mind, Body and Spirit”. To enjoy a happy and balanced life we need to take a holistic approach and look after all three. Eat well, exercise regularly, and get out in nature. Speak to a professional if you find you are down and not coping too well. Holistic treatments can all help to enhance our spiritual side. For many, their faith can really help at difficult times. Dancing and music, whatever works for you, go for it. Look after all aspects of your health, mental, physical, spiritual and emotional, simply because you are worth it.
We are now in the month of January. The excitement and anticipation of having your loved ones home for Christmas has faded. They are gone back to college, or to their own jobs and homes. You may find this can trigger symptoms of ENS once more. Allow yourself to feel it. It is natural and to be expected. What is important is not to dwell there too long.
Talk to somebody. Sometimes a chat with a good friend, especially someone who has been there, is all that is needed to get back on track. Journaling can help. Remember that you are both different people to who you were before becoming parents. It is important to recognise that for each other and that you can only adjust to ENS at your own pace, and not at another person’s pace. This is true in all aspects of grief.
Life is for living, not existing. You have both done your job now as “Mam” and “Dad”. The fact that your children are happy and ready to spread their wings is proof of a job well done. Acknowledge that for each other as you embrace this new chapter of your life.
For single empty nesters, all of the above is dedicated to you also. Being single can add to your grief and anxieties, so I would really and truly encourage you to reach out and seek professional help and support to help you embrace life on your own now that your child/children have flown the nest should you feel the need to do so. You have fulfilled your parenting role. Now it is “Me Time”. Embrace self-care. You are worth it.
As the late Wayne Dyer said, “When you dance, your purpose is not to get to a certain place on the floor. It’s to enjoy each step along the way.”
How can parents cope and embrace their new life in a happy, healthy and holistic way?
According to Carl Jung, “the afternoon of life is just as full of meaning as the morning, only, its meaning and purpose are different”.
Our attitude will determine how we experience life, including ENS. If either or both parents are still finding it difficult to cope after a lengthy time has passed, then it is important to seek professional support. Having a safe and confidential space to talk about your grief, loneliness and anxieties can really help one to gradually embrace a new life without the responsibilities and patterns attached to parenting.
Let your adult children know that whilst you are so proud of them and happy for them, you do miss them and look forward to their visits. Remind them that you are there for them if they ever need to reach out. What works now for both sides when it comes to communication? Texts, phone calls, Zoom? A bit of everything? Effective communication and emotional intelligence make a difference when it comes to enjoying healthy relationships.
Try getting to know your partner/spouse all over again. Embrace the opportunities to get away together, spend the extra cash on yourselves. Have fun. Learn to look forward to your children coming home to visit, or even better, heading off to visit them and be waited on hand and foot from time to time!
Psychotherapist Claire Lyons Forde is based in Co Kerry and offers therapy in person, as well as online and over the phone. For further information, call 087-939-9818.