Filling (And Even Enjoying) the Empty Nest

Here, how to turn this time into a huge opportunity for personal growth.

It can suddenly feel like there’s a big hole in your heart when your kids are all gone off to university or college, or have taken a job somewhere. Your once hectic life is suddenly a whole lot quieter, the demands on your time much fewer.

“This is not something you’re going to find in the diagnostic statistical manual,” says Alyson Schafer, a Toronto-based psychotherapist, parenting expert and best-selling author. “But we are recognizing that it’s very common when kids leave home for parents – and more so for mothers – to experience a great sense of loss. It’s a kind of grief. And it’s to be expected since such a tremendous part of a woman’s self-concept it tied to being a mother. It can create a sense of meaninglessness.”

Alyson says the departure of kids also usually kick-starts a new phase in our lives, bringing about new challenges as well as new opportunities – and in some cases realizations.

“The distraction of parenting may have kept us from asking the big, deep questions,” she says. “They could be about our marriage. Maybe we were holding the marriage together for the child.”

Frequently the departure of kids also coincides with the beginning of menopause, creating for women what Alyson calls “a tsunami of events”.

But parents all need to be patient and try to reframe the way they look at the change. “Parents need to realize this is a process and that any major life transition is going to take time. It’s also a huge opportunity for personal growth.”

“Now you have time to think about yourself, about your dreams. Now you have time to think about your wants, your dreams, your friendships and your desires – what you want to create now with the time, space and energy that was previously devoted to raising kids.”

Alyson advises empty nesters not to focus too much on the absence of the child, but instead to envision what the future might hold.

“Get in touch with the benefits, even if it’s just initially about lower water bills, less laundry, and better weekend sleeps without worrying if they’ve crashed the car or when they’re going to get home. Then maybe you can think about going back to university or taking that art class. It can be an exciting time.”

But it’s also a time when you have to step back as a parent and realize it’s not just the family home that’s changed. Your job as a parent has changed too. “We’re supposed to launch our children and then learn to communicate with them as adults,” says Alyson.

“We need to let go to a certain extent and remember that the fact your kids are launched is where the mistakes are going to begin. They’re floundering newbie adults and they’re going to make mistakes and as parents we have to take a deep breath and say ‘that’s not my child failing, that’s my child learning’.

Your job is to support them, not rescue them, and that can be hard – but if not now, when?”

Part of empty nest syndrome also involves facing things that might have been too difficult for parents to face earlier. It’s not uncommon for couples to be left looking at each other and wondering ‘what are we to each other now?’

“This is when couples need to talk and realize this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It can be like spring cleaning. Often, it actually reinvigorates and enriches the marriage. It can be scary confronting something, but if you’re brave enough to look it in the eye and do the work, if often leads to a whole other season in your marriage.”

In general, it’s important for empty nesters to talk about how they feel, no matter what surfaces.

“Don’t suffer quietly,” advises Alyson. “Talk with a friend, a counsellor or write in a journal. If all we do is think, it just perseverates in a circle in our brain. If we talk and turn it into language or we journal and turn it into language, it tends to go to different parts of the brain and makes us go forward.”