How to Sail Through Empty Nest Syndrome
Graduations took place across the country several weeks ago, and now thousands of promising young people are heading off to college or to their first jobs. For most parents, it’s a time of pride, but also of mixed feelings, particularly for moms.
Seeing that bedroom suddenly emptied out can do some damage to a loving heart—especially if it’s the last room, and there are no more little ones to fill it.
They call it “empty nest” syndrome, and it’s at this time of year that many women find themselves facing it. Even those who thought they had it all under control may experience emotions they didn’t expect.
Sadness. Worry. Grief. Depression. And beyond these, a loss of purpose and identity.
You may be going through something you didn’t think had anything to do with empty nest syndrome—like a marital conflict or work problems—only to find that it is connected to the same issue.
The good news is that this is a transition period, and if you take the right steps forward, you can emerge from it feeling stronger and happier than you may have thought possible.
What is Empty Nest Syndrome?
Empty nest syndrome (ENS) is not a doctor-diagnosed condition, but rather a term that describes the feelings that can occur in parents after children grow up and leave home. Though both parents are likely to be affected, women are more at risk because they are often the primary caregivers for the majority of their children’s lives.
Women are also more at risk because they are frequently going through menopause (or pre-menopause) at the same time that their children are leaving, which can exacerbate their symptoms, and they may also be caregivers for their own parents.
This is a time of transition, and it can be a painful one. Typical symptoms of empty nest syndrome may include:
- Excessive worry
- Feelings of distress and restlessness
- Trouble “filling the void” left behind by the children
These feelings are common, and typically go away within several weeks as parents adjust. For some moms, it doesn’t take long before they find themselves loving the extra space and time. They realize they now have the opportunity to go after some of the goals they’ve been neglecting for years, and dive into a new stage of life with renewed energy and vigor. Others really enjoy having a more adult relationship with their children, and make a point to reinvest their time in their relationship with their spouse or partner.
Some moms, though, may experience more difficult lasting symptoms, including:
- Difficulty adjusting to life without children
- Depression and anxiety
- Identity crisis
- Marital conflicts
- Work troubles
How can you tell how ENS may affect you?
5 Signs You May Struggle with ENS
Though you know yourself best, there are some commonly accepted characteristics that could make it more difficult for you to get through ENS. If you think any of the following describes you, take it seriously, and don’t be afraid to reach out for help.
1. You don’t like change, period.
If any sort of change stresses you out, ENS is likely to be particularly difficult. Ask yourself how you feel when your boss announces changes at work, or when you have to shop for a new car, or when some life change requires you to make changes in your schedule. If these types of adjustments tend to hit you hard, ENS may, too.
2. Your identity was strongly wrapped up in your children.
Many women wanted nothing more out of life than to be moms. If you’re one of them, this may be a really hard time for you. If you were that little girl who used to dream up names for your children, or used to play with dolls as if they were your children, and then went on to thrive as a mom as an adult, you may arrive at this point suddenly not knowing what else you might do with your life.
Imagine a woman who worked all her life as a surgeon, and then suddenly got into an accident that robbed her of one hand. The accident ends her life as a doctor. You’d expect her to struggle, right? To grieve over that loss, and to have trouble figuring out what she’s going to do now?
The same thing can happen to moms who put all their energy and effort into their children. When the kids leave, suddenly you’re left without their companionship, but also without your purpose. This makes the transition especially difficult, but not impossible. Just like that doctor could find a new way put her talents to work, so can you.
3. Your partnership is struggling.
If you’re experiencing marital problems, or struggles with your partner, it may be even more difficult to watch the children walk out the door. Suddenly the thing that gave your partnership a focal point is gone, which may reveal even more of the gaps and weaknesses in your relationship. Without the children, you may also see these weaknesses a lot more clearly than you did before, and be forced to deal with them in a new way.
4. You feel guilty already.
Did your child have trouble in high school? Did he struggle with grades, drugs, or alcohol? Does she seem ill equipped to manage life on her own?
If you worry that you failed your children somehow, and didn’t prepare them well enough for life as adults, you may find yourself facing guilt, which can make ENS even more difficult than usual.
5. You lack other familial support.
If you don’t have a lot of other family support, ENS can be tough. You may not have others to turn to, particularly if you were an only child, you’ve lost your partner, your parents are deceased, or you’re estranged from other family members. These types of situations can make you feel even more isolated after your children are gone.
Tips to Make it Easier to Deal with Empty Nest Syndrome
No matter who you are, you’re likely to feel some difficult emotions surrounding the departure of your children. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to help yourself sail successfully through this transition.
First, give yourself time. In today’s world, women tend to expect too much of themselves too soon. Realize that this is a big life transition and you need time to adjust. Don’t make any big decisions right now. Don’t move into a new house or buy a fancy new car or sell off a big chunk of your belongings until you feel stronger and more secure.
Seek professional help. Talking to a psychologist can help you to better understand and manage your feelings as they come up. If you’re struggling with depression or anxiety, short-term medications may also make the transition a lot easier. Don’t be afraid to take this step as it can help you make the transition a lot faster with better results for your overall health and well-being.
Journal. Writing is a proven way to help you deal with difficult feelings. Just getting them down on paper (or on a computer document) can help relieve the pain and loneliness you may be feeling. Make it a habit to spend at least ten minutes every morning and/or evening to get your thoughts down about how you’re feeling.
Don’t worry about grammar or sentence structure or anything else. Just write. No one will see the pages but you, and they are likely to help you adjust. Even better, when you review them later on, you may find ideas as to other things you’d now like to do with your life.
Rediscover your partner. Many women find that their relationships with their partners actually improve after the kids leave home. Scientists reported in a 2008 study that the transition to an empty nest increased marital satisfaction, with women finding more enjoyment in the time they spent with their partners.
If your relationship with your partner was struggling before the kids left, it may be difficult for you to see how you can fix it now. Realize that your feelings are normal, and that they signal a need to do something to improve your life.
Maybe some joint counseling sessions would help you and your partner come back together. Maybe you need time to rediscover each other, and find out who you are now, after all this time. A vacation together may be a good idea, or it could be time to get back into an activity you used to do together that you enjoyed.
If after a sufficient period of time you find that your relationship cannot be repaired, maybe it’s time for a change. Try to trust in the knowledge that your intuition is leading you to what’s best for you. It may be frightening at times, but if you listen to yourself and take action, it’s likely to leave you happier in the long run.
Reconnect with other important relationships. As a mom, you may have bemoaned your lack of time to spend with close friends and relatives. Now, you need their support, so make a point of reaching out.
Catch up with friends over lunch, invite your siblings to a weekend away, set up a new date night with your husband or partner, or host a party at your house and invite the neighbors over. Social support is like a salve over the wounds of ENS, so don’t hesitate to find new ways to interact with those you care about.
Seek out new interests. It’s time to put the focus back on you and your own development. For decades you’ve been focused on helping others to reach their full potential. Now you have the chance to point the light back at yourself.
Start by writing down your bucket list—all those things you promised yourself you would do “one day” and still haven’t done. Don’t leave anything out. Once you have your list, start taking action toward the easiest item immediately. Push yourself to get out of your comfort zone and try something new. Take a class, join a new hobby or professional group, volunteer, or start on a new career. Go back to school if you like, or make plans to travel. The options are endless and are limited only by your imagination.
Focus on the positive. It can be easy to focus on the negatives when the kids leave. The house is too quiet. You miss hearing about how their days went. You feel a little lost with too much time on your hands.
Try focusing on the positive elements of the change, instead. You probably don’t have as much laundry or cleaning to do. Your grocery and electric bills are lower. You don’t have to chauffeur so much. There’s more space in the bathroom. These are little things, but directing your mind toward these positive elements will help your overall emotional state.
Redefine yourself. Who are you now? Though you will always be a mom, that role has changed, and no longer requires all your time and energy. Now, you have a chance to adopt a new identity. Try to remember other dreams you’ve had along the way. What were some other things you’ve wanted to do and just couldn’t because of your responsibilities as a mom?
Now is the time to explore. Write down your strengths as a person. Are you caring, organized, hard-working, creative? Think about what others have told you they appreciate about you and write it down. Then look over your list and think about how you could use those talents in a new way.
Find new ways to interact with your children. Sometimes, moms who are having trouble with ENS may “hover” around their departed children, stalking them on Facebook or calling every day. Resist the impulse to do that and work to keep yourself busy. Once you get past the initial adjustment period (a couple months), explore new ways to communicate with your kids.
Maybe you can text them now and then, make plans to spend family time at a favorite vacation spot, or set up a once-a-week call. Be patient and realize that it will take time for you all to find your footing with your new roles. Trust in the fact that no matter what, you are still mom, and your kids know that. It’s likely that before long, they’ll be seeking you out for your advice or support.
By then, you may just be too busy to take the call!
“Empty Nest Syndrome,” BetterHealth.vic.gov.au, Department of Health & Human Services, State Government of Victoria, Australia, https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/empty-nest-syndrome.
Sara M. Gorchoff, et al., “Contextualizing Change in Marital Satisfaction During Middle Age,” Psychological Science, November 2008; 19(11):1194-1200, http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02222.x.