| | By Susan E. Davis
Ah, September. The jittery nerves about who is getting which teacher. The forays for school supplies (crayons, notebooks, binders, mini-staplers, and, oh yes—now that it’s 2013, even kindergartners need flash drives). The bittersweet mix of relief and sadness as the kids go back to school, leaving parents with more time on their hands and the poignant awareness that another year has passed and another is about to begin.
But for parents whose last child is leaving for college (or other adventures), those bittersweet feelings can be even more intense. Yes, there may be amazement and fierce pride that the teen has gotten into school (or started a job, or decided to get married, or headed off around the world). But then there’s the profound realization that the childhood years are gone and the parent’s role as ever-present nurturer is over.
And that can be far more difficult than parents expect.
“I get dozens upon dozens of calls from mothers who are very sad about this loss of having family at home,” says Toni Littlestone, an Albany-based career counselor who started her own group for parents experiencing empty nest syndrome. “These are parents who loved raising their children, seeing them on a daily basis, just being parents. Losing that can be very hard.”
Empty nest syndrome isn’t a clinical term, but it’s one that psychologists recognize as a very real condition. The symptoms include grief, depression, losing a sense of purpose, feeling rejected, anxiety about the child’s safety, guilt over past mistakes and lost opportunities, and just plain missing the daily companionship of living with a child. It can afflict any parent, but certain parents can be more vulnerable to it than others, including:
• Full-time mothers or fathers.
• People whose primary identity has been that of a parent.
• Parents in unsatisfactory marriages (as they may have been getting most of their emotional needs met through their children).
• Parents dealing with other stressors, such as retirement, menopause, aging parents, or divorce.
• Single mothers.
• Those who found it hard to leave home themselves.
• Parents with pre-existing emotional health problems, including depression or anxiety.
Some parents, in fact, can spiral into a severe depression after their last child leaves the house. “And it’s not always those you expect,” Littlestone says. “I’ve met some parents who seemed very matter-of-fact, very down-to-earth, who ended up having a terrible time. And I’ve seen people who seem to be living a perfectly lovely life, full of work and friends and family, and when they realize that this part of their life is over, they spend a year crying constantly.”
Here’s the reassuring news: On a scale of 1 to 10, where the 1s are barely affected and the 10s are extremely affected, “most people fall into the 4 to 7 range,” she adds. “They feel bad, but they do manage the transition.”
Cynthia Brody, a therapist who works out of Moraga, says she felt like she had lost a leg when she put her daughter on a plane for the University of Michigan many years ago. “I went to Safeway and walked up and down the baby food aisles crying, remembering when she had eaten her first applesauce. It was so difficult.”
Eventually, though, she found that she had to focus on her present life. “This is how I and most people come out of the initial grief,” she says. “It is important to feel the feelings, not try to escape them, but also not fan those fires with catastrophic thinking or negativity. Like most transitions that seem so impossible to accept in life, we learn to accommodate the changes and move forward, often in ways we cannot imagine.”
Littlestone also had a hard time sending her son off five years ago, which led this self-described “circle-former” (because she likes to start and join groups) to gather with other local mothers who had just sent their last-borns off into the world.
“Typically the first year is quite raw,” she says. “You can be so aware of the fact that the children aren’t there, the rooms are quiet, you don’t quite know what to do with yourself when you’re not cooking for them, driving them places, eating with them every night.
“But after that it gets easier,” she adds, “especially if you understand that this transition really is continual. We will continue developing relationships with our kids, being concerned about them, as they get to be 18, 19, 20, 21.”
How to allow that transition to happen gracefully? Experts suggest the following tips:
Take advantage of texting, email, and Skyping. But do it with some restraint. You don’t want to be pulling at your child emotionally, at the very time he’s learning to be on his own. “Some kids want to be as far away as possible,” says Brody, who sees parents and college students. “With those kids you may need to negotiate set times to email or talk on the phone. Others may need more support, especially in the beginning. But then you may need to step back so they have space to grow.”
Send care packages. Boxes full of food, clothing, or books—whatever your child loves—will warm her heart. It will also help you channel feelings of love and nurturance.
Think about what your new relationship will be like. Now is the time to consider how you want to relate to your changing children. Ask, “How can we have a really healthy, alive relationship?” Littlestone says. “How can we evolve together?”
Acknowledge the loss of control. You’ve been building up to this for years, of course, but now it’s really true: You don’t have much control over what your child is doing. “You’ve put in most of what you can put in,” Brody says. “You have to give it over—either to God, if you believe in that, or crossing your fingers and wishing for the best. Just hope everything you taught them about good sense and judgment sank in.”
Building a new identity for yourself, as an adult, is equally important. Experts suggest:
“Find a safe space,” Littlestone says, “to explore and express your mixed feelings of both sadness at this part of your life ending and interest in who you can be now. So much of this is often done in isolation. Thinking about it out loud really helps. In our group, we talk about ourselves, our kids, our kids’ challenges, our own challenges. We always say that without talking to each other, this would be a desolate time.”
Relearn what friendship is, Littlestone says, “when it’s not based on being parents. This is a time to start being more intentional about choosing friends, planting the seeds of making sure that you have a healthy, nourished friendship life.”
Rediscover yourself. “It’s easy to lose track of your own identity when you’ve been raising children a long time, especially if that has been your adult identity,” Brody says. “But this is an incredible opportunity—most parents aren’t that old yet and they have nobody to take care of but themselves. You might ask yourself a popular question these days: ‘What would you do if you weren’t afraid?’”
Adds Littlestone, “This really is the time to explore other parts of your adult self, to find new interests. Some moms haven’t been working and are ready to work. Some people become interested in travel, or music, or knitting or historic walks or quilting or their spiritual life. Many mothers even become re-interested in cooking food they like, after having cooked for a family for so many years. And many people start to focus on their spouses or partners, or their aging parents. It’s a return to ‘What do I want to be and do with the rest of my life?’”
Not everyone gets empty nest syndrome. Several recent studies have found that marital satisfaction tends to decline with children (due to extra work and expenses). As such, some therapists say, empty-nesters may be able to renew their bonds with and devotion to their spouse once children move away. In fact, several recent studies have found that empty-nesters grow happier once their children leave.
Other studies have found that the combination of being in the work force and the ubiquity of ways to connect with children away from home (including email, Skyping, texting, and Facebook) have eased empty nest syndrome considerably for the parents of this generation.
And, of course, it’s always possible that your child hasn’t gone away forever. More and more young adult children (19 percent of men aged 25-34 and 10 percent of women the same age, according to the U.S. Census Bureau) were back home in 2011.
“When I talk to parents who look like they’re really ready to fall apart, I always say, ‘Don’t worry, they’ll be back,’” says Brody.
An ounce of prevention, of course, is worth a pound of cure, so if your last child is leaving home in a year or two, now is the time to start preparing for the adjustment. You might start transitioning to full-time work if you’ve only been doing part-time work. Or start looking for volunteer work that captures your heart.
To avoid worrying that your kids can’t cope on their own, spend time the year before they leave making sure they know how to do laundry, balance a checking account, make some simple meals, and, if they’re heading to a city, handle taxis and public transportation. To help both of you let go, start giving your teens more independence by not insisting that you always know where they are.
Then be explicit, the summer before they leave, about worries they may have. “Don’t just say, ‘Oh, it will be OK,’” Brody says. “Talk to them honestly about anxieties they may have about the academic work, making friends, losing their old friends, and being away from home. Encourage them to make agreements with their roommates about cleanliness, visitors and parties, and [so on].”
One last thing for parents to remember: While the anticipation of having the children fledge can provoke anxiety—and watching them actually fly off can prompt grief—this is a natural stage of growth for children and parents alike and one that can result in a closer relationship in the long run. “Both the parents and the children are emerging into the next chapter of our lives,” Littlestone says. “And that can be very exciting.”
Susan E. Davis lives, works, writes, and watches birds in Alameda.