Surviving Empty Nest Syndrome

Parenting presents a crossroad every time you turn around.  Becoming an Empty Nester is one of the bittersweet ones.

In August 2018 my husband and I dropped off our youngest, a daughter, at college.  Now we are officially Empty Nesters. 

I cannot think of a more poignant crossroads for me at this time. 

Over 21 years ago, when we welcomed our first, a son, I was at the other end of that crossroads.  I know it isn’t over yet.  Is parenting ever over?  Texts, emails and phone calls would certainly suggest it’s not!

But for the first time in over 21 years, my husband and I will not be considering what one of our children might need that day, or contemplating calendars, carpools, school events, school projects, college applications, laundry loads, unfinished chores lists (and effective nagging strategies to promote completion of said chore list) or what to cook for dinner or who might actually be there. 

After successfully depositing our daughter at a university in Los Angeles, we headed to Disneyland.  So cliché, I know.  “You just dropped your youngest child off at college! Now what?  ‘We’re going to Disneyland!’”  But we had a few days to kill before heading to a family event with my in-laws, so we headed to the “Happiest Place on Earth” to dry our tears of joy, exhaustion, fear and heart heaviness. 

It backfired.

All I could think about was the last time we were there with our two kids.

We were not a yearly Disney family.  In 21 years we went probably 4 times.  But I recalled each visit.  In Disney Vista Vision!!  Fantasyland with our daughter for her 3rd birthday.  She loved the rides but did not love the characters.  My son, who couldn’t get enough of them.  Tarzan’s Tree House where both were a bit frightened when the leopard roared.  Indiana Jones ride, where my son, traumatized after his first ride at age 6 declared, “I hate that ride!”  The Silhouette Studio on Main Street that chronicled the changing shape and character of my children over the years.  So many memories. 

And we were witness to so many families making new memories.  It was beautiful.  It was overwhelming.  I choked up.  I cried.  I laughed.  And eventually, it worked. 

We rode the rides together again.  Just the two of us.  No need to figure out who needed to be with whom.  Who liked rollercoasters, who didn’t?  Who liked water rides, who didn’t?  Who throws up on the Teacups, and who doesn’t. 

No Teacups for either of us, this time, thank you!

Obviously both of us will carve out a new normal.  We’ll have time and space to figure out new endeavors; rediscover old interests and new passions.  So in a sense, our proverbial “crossroad” looks more like the webbing of the Los Angeles interchanges we passed over and through on our way from Los Angeles to Anaheim.  Like those interchanges, it is about how we move through, move on and move forward.

Movement is good.  I’m excited for the challenge.  I know I’ll go through a whole new experience when I get back to our house and it is quieter and calmer, and when I have to go back to cleaning the kid’s bathroom, emptying the dishwasher, feeding the dog, picking up the dog poop, folding laundry, dusting…

The crossroads just keep coming.

When you find yourself approaching an Empty-Nest, or in the new-ness of being an Empty Nester, consider these strategies:

  1. Be gentle with yourself.  You might feel a wave of relief and glee, but then again, you might just feel some grief.  This is normal and natural.  While some of this grief may feel like depression, most studies suggest it is not, but rather a transitional phase – one that will pass along with time.  Look – it took some time to adjust to that child being there in the first place, right?  Give yourself and your partner or spouse time.  However, if crying (and crying is normal!) persists for a long period of time, or other symptoms of depression such as changes in sleeping, eating, hygiene or ability to take part in normal activities such as working persists, see a doctor or mental health professional.
  • Don’t rush to take over a child’s bedroom!  Before you redecorate the kid’s room, wait at least a month, if not more.  For one thing, your child will likely visit again, and it could be quite a shock, and a painful one at that, to come home to a completely changed room.  Consider instead, moving some of that kiddo’s things from other rooms into boxes to store elsewhere, or to store in a closet or under a bed.  You will eventually get the room back, but changing so quickly can bring up more adjustment glitches than you might be aware of initially.
  • Hold back on contacting your child.  I would highly recommend when you see your son or daughter off – to college, armed services, new job elsewhere, new living arrangement – that you expressly request that THEY make the first call, text or connection.  This is likely hard for them, too, but give your child time to adjust and make the first contact.  This is as much about their process as yours so give them space.
  • Celebrate and mark the occasion with a spouse, partner or friend.  If you are in marriage or relationship, make plans to mark the occasion somehow with something special.  It could be a night out at a restaurant never tried or an old favorite.  It could be a quick trip away.  It could be buying one new item for your house or garden – some sort of transitional object commemorating a new phase. This is a big deal, and it is good to acknowledge and mark it.
  • Find old friends or make new ones. This is a great time to reconnect with old friends.  However, it often happens that couples find their friend groups are really centered around their children – the other parents of the school, of the sport team, etc.  If this is the case, this is a good time to engage in some discovery.  One way is through community groups, or even Meetup groups, Eventbrite, or other social organizing sites that alert you to events in your area.  Think about a new skill or hobby your want to revisit or learn.  There is likely to be a class in a local park and recreation center or a Meetup or Eventbrite groups.  Many are free.
  • Create a morning or daily routine.  Having daily or morning routine can help you reconnect with yourself.  It is also a fundamental part of living with intention – mindful living that serves to keep you grounded and focused.  There has been a lot written about morning routines over the last few years, and most successful people point to a morning routine as a practice that keeps them sane and successful. Now with your child or children out of the home and time to do mornings, your way – experiment!  Try meditation, prayer, reading, yoga, essential oils, or exercise – maybe lovingly prepared tea or coffee.  Aim for a 30 to 60 minute routine that starts your day with the intentions you find in your heart.  Keep a journal – track how your practice impacts your life.

Put yourself first.  It will be a new practice, but one that will benefit not only you, but all those you encounter.  And remember strategy number one:  Be gentle with yourself!

Christy