What kind of empty-nester will you be?

We’ve all heard parents say they can’t wait until their nest starts to empty. Sophie Wong had always assumed she’d be the same – until her 18 year old decided to move out.

“What’s for dinner?”, “I need money for…”, “Can you drop me off at…”  Those of us who are parents will instantly recognise these from the long list of questions and demands our children will make, or have made, as the years pass.  If our children are young we might enjoy, even welcome, being needed and depended on. But this dependency may also make us wish our children would grow up quicker and become independent sooner, so we can have our lives back. For the most part, I was happy to accept my parental responsibilities as I raised my two children (now 18 and 22). But at times, I too imagined being an empty-nester with a tidier house, less grocery shopping and laundry to do – following no one else’s schedule but my own. I also assumed that when the time came I’d make the transition to empty-nester with ease. As it turned out, that wasn’t the case.

While I expected that my children would eventually want their independence, the speed of it still shocked me. I’d always assumed my son, being the eldest, would leave home first, so I was unprepared when my daughter announced her intention to move out. As I processed this unexpected news, I couldn’t help but think about the last 18 years since the day my husband and I brought her home from the hospital. I recalled having days where I felt immense joy and contentment, but also ones where I felt overwhelmed and wondered what I’d gotten myself into. I also reflected, with more than a twinge of guilt, on how I could have done more with my children, been more patient and picked my battles more wisely.

However, the seemingly endless treadmill of sleepless nights, getting through school pick-ups and drop-offs, unheeded curfews and everything else in between, absorbs much of parents’ lives for the first 18 years. Parenting can be an intense, all-consuming role with a huge learning curve of extraordinary conditions and expectations. You may not realise how much being a parent has impacted your life – until your  children no longer seem to need you.

I had heard about ‘Empty Nest Syndrome’ but until now, had never thought that it would ever apply to me. Empty Nest Syndrome, according to Psychology Today, is “a feeling of loneliness or depression that occurs among parents after children grow up and leave home.” Although they might actively encourage their children to become independent, the experience of letting go may result in parents feeling that their usefulness has ended. It can also be difficult for some parents to cope with no longer being involved in their child’s daily life, or having their constant companionship. However, most parents adapt in time. Psychologists suggest that it may even take some parents between 18 months and two years to successfully transition from being a ‘hands on’ parent to feeling comfortable watching from the sidelines.

On one hand, my conflicting emotions surprised me. I encouraged and supported my daughter’s decision but secretly, I found myself looking for even the slightest sign she might be having second thoughts. While it was deeply satisfying to have helped my daughter acquire practical skills for living away from home, I also felt short-changed. After all my hard work, I thought I deserved to have her around for a bit longer and enjoy this side of her that was not dependent on me. In fact, I felt like I’d been given a promotion and made redundant, all at the same time. On the other hand, I’d been looking forward to the day when I no longer had to factor my child’s needs into every decision I made. I told myself that it was a good thing my child wanted to be independent – I would not have done my job as a parent properly otherwise. I could also see an unexpected advantage with the change in my family dynamics. Whenever there were disagreements I was always the ‘meat in the sandwich’, so ‘going vegetarian’ would be a nice change. But I’d still underestimated the emotional impact of a child leaving home.

At a party, I talked to a friend about my daughter’s departure the previous week. My friend, whose children had already left home, immediately topped up my glass and patted me on the back. She explained that her gesture was not just sympathetic – it was also congratulatory. She told me that it was perfectly natural for me to feel sad. However, I should also celebrate the parental journey I had made, and look forward to the exciting possibilities of the one that lay ahead. As we talked, I realised I shouldn’t ignore my feelings but instead, try to understand them. I began to ask myself – what kind of empty-nester do I want to be, and how do I achieve that?

Wellington psychologist Jo Leech suggests parents keep reminding themselves that this transition is a good thing for all involved. “The experience of leaving home gives your children many opportunities to further develop life skills. Learning how to manage their time, look after their health and get on with other people will make your children stronger and increase their confidence in their abilities. Hopefully, knowing all this – and seeing your children coping – will remind you of the bigger picture and the positive side of becoming an empty-nester.”

Though hard to do at first, my transition had to start with accepting my changing relationship with my daughter. At 52, and conscious of a generation gap, I made an effort to find common ground and discovered our shared love for shopping and cooking together. Because she would be in Auckland, and my husband and I in Wellington, we wouldn’t be seeing her for weeks, possibly months, at a time. Despite this, I wanted us to still feel bonded even though she was not around. I used to feel that technology was invasive at times – however, I appreciated that it would now make it so much easier for us to keep in touch. As I began to accept my daughter’s need for independence I was keen to find out how other parents felt, or imagined they would feel, about their emptying nests.

I spoke to Wiebke, a mum from Wellington, whose daughters are Danielle, 22, and Olivia, 13. She told me that Danielle’s move to Switzerland hit her hard. “Initially, I felt absolute loss and grief. Because she’d been at home longer (than most young adults) I really missed having her around to do things with, as well as being a companion for her sister. What made it worse was the distance and not knowing when we’d see her again. It was difficult to walk past her room as it now looks like a hotel room – I was actually missing the messy floor!” Over time it has become easier for Wiebke to deal with her daughter’s absence as technology, especially Skype and emailing, have made it easier to maintain regular contact. She has also had more time for ‘date nights’ with her husband Bryan, more time for exercise, and more time to spend with their younger daughter.

As well as having more time and energy for your partner and other children, if you have them, an empty or emptying nest can also enable you to focus more on your own needs, discover new interests and resurrect any career ambitions you may have put on hold. Rather than seeing the nest emptying as a stressful change, it may be helpful instead, to see it as a challenging but liberating one.

I also spoke to Chris, who has children aged 18, 22 and 26. “When the older two left home I was quite taken aback at how easily they seemed to cut the metaphorical umbilical cord, but I realised this was necessary for our family to grow.” Making the most of her spare time to find another focus in life was immensely helpful. She found volunteer and tutoring work were ideal outlets for her nurturing instincts. She also described how the absence of the older children forced her to see them in a new light and likened the experience to when they started school – ‘only bigger’. Chris agreed that leaving home was a rite of passage for both child and parent.

So what does the prospect of an empty nest mean for someone whose kids are still at home? Helen has teenagers aged 13 and 15. She sees herself as a ‘reverse empty-nester’ as she and her partner had 15 years together before becoming parents. “No doubt, I’m sure I’ll feel some grief when the day-to-day parenting ends,” she told me. “But I’m also excited about seeing my kids becoming adults, so at this stage I’m looking forward to the day they leave home to make their way in the world.” She is keen for her kids to be independent, secure in the knowledge that their parents are available, if needed. When her nest starts emptying, Helen would like to do more travel (particularly to unusual and exotic places), is keen to start a small business, become more involved with her community, and maybe write a book.

Talking to these women at their different stages of parenting about becoming an empty-nester, and the issues it brought up, helped me to put my own feelings into perspective. I learned that although I initially felt like my role had diminished, my daughter will still need me again – for instance, with relationships or career decisions. And I’m sure she’ll need me if she ever decides to become a parent.

I now appreciate that parenting is a role that continues to grow and evolve – as long as my children and I are alive, I can never be made redundant. I continue to acknowledge and value what may ultimately be one of my most important achievements – empowering my children to be independent and confident enough to make their way through life – with and without me.

Things to remember

  • You’re not only a parent but a life partner, a friend, a co-worker and a person. Acknowledging all of these roles is crucial for a balanced life regardless of what age your children are.
  • Don’t feel that your usefulness has diminished. Keep reminding yourself of the value of what you have achieved in enabling your child to be independent.
  • Give yourself time to adapt to the change.
  • Don’t worry about what others think when seeking new interests, careers or other ways of extending yourself to help
    fill the void.
  • Acknowledging your feelings and not being afraid to share them is important for maintaining a healthy attitude.
  • Keep nurturing your relationship with your partner. Children should not be the only thing keeping you together.

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