The days of bringing me home their handmade ceramic tchotchkes (trinkets in Yiddish) from school & scouts, the rock from the garden, and the trophy for participation in sports are long past. Ditto for me being the hub and them being the spokes in our wheel of life. Ditto for me knowing where they were or where they said they were or where they wanted me to believe they were!
Empty nest syndrome refers to feelings of depression, sadness, and, or grief experienced by parents and caregivers after children come of age and leave their childhood homes. This may occur when children go to college or get married. Women are more likely than men to be affected. Often, when children leave the home, we could be going through other significant life events as well, such as menopause or caring for elderly parents.
Empty nest syndrome is not a clinical diagnosis, but rather describes a transition period in which many people experience feelings of loneliness or loss. While many parents encourage their children to become independent adults, the experience of sending children off into the world can be a difficult one.
Early in children’s lives, parents are pretty much in control. If you are good, decent folk, your kids get a good base. A solid foundation. An early psychological theorist, Winnicott, called it the “good enough” parent. (That phrase was always comforting to me somehow…)
At some point, things shift. The child takes on more and more responsibility for how they are coping in their world. They choose friends. They begin to define their interests, choose a career path. Their identities as individuals. Expand their social circle, their world grows beyond parents and home.
Parenting can often seem like a tightrope act. While it might get a little easier with time, the job is far from over after the kids have flown the coop. Many parents breathe a huge sigh of relief when they’re finally done balancing dirty diapers, whining toddlers, soccer practices and rebellious teenagers; now the relaxation can start, right? Well, sort of. You might not have the day-to-day parenting challenges anymore, but it can be tough to navigate a new relationship with an adult child. Are you a friend? An adviser? A loan shark? When do you give advice, and when do you keep your mouth shut? And what about your handsome son who just can’t seem to find a wife?
(Truly, he is a real catch ladies. Quirky but oh so love-able!)
But a nagging thought persists. If I am not privy to at least some of the details in their richly layered lives, how do we maintain a sense of mother-child intimacy and connection? It puzzles me.
All parents have an aha moment when they realize that their little baby is all grown up. It can be a bittersweet realization — he’s/she’s not my sweet little 3-year-old anymore — or a pretty great one — he’s/she’s not that back-talking teenager anymore. He’s/She’s his/her own person. You need to treat him with the same respect you’d give to any other adult, and starting from a place of respect will make your relationship stronger and so much more enjoyable. But please make an effort to come to this realization sooner rather than later — not when he’s/she’s 35.
Regardless of the past, I believe our children, whatever their age, want to know who we really are. If we do the vital inner work necessary to spiritual and emotional parenting, then relinquishing our children will be easier than we might expect. We will no longer feel compelled to use them as a means of working through the unfinished business of our past or as the focus of our future desires.
I am sure that you’ve read the guidelines for giving handouts to your adult kids. Here’s another one: If they keep asking, know when to say when. Sure, we’ve all been in tough spots and needed a hand, but watch out that your darling child doesn’t start taking advantage. If you’re tired of being Daddy Warbucks, march your child over to the nearest bank and show her how to fill out a loan application.
What are some of the benefits to an empty nest: Your time is your own: After years of spending much of your free time watching your children play sports or perform in shows; shuttling them to and from playdates, parties, school and religious education; and keeping them fed, clothed and clean, you are now free to spend your off-hours doing whatever it is you want to do.
Your house is as clean and organized as you want it to be: Whatever else you can say about teenagers, for the most part they are not the neatest people. They often have a lot of extra stuff to manage, like school books, athletic gear, electronics and more. Once your nest is empty, you can be fairly certain that how you leave it in the morning is how it will look when you return home later in the day. Clean it out. Get rid of the stuff that you keep from those childhood years. Pass it on to your kids, but move into the next chapter of your life. They have, so should you.
You can focus on your relationship: You may still be married or you may be single. Either way, an empty nest is the best time to shift your focus from making others happy to making yourself happy.
You may rediscover your relationship in a positive, exciting way, or you may want to make a change to whatever your situation is. Now is your chance to pay attention to what makes you happy and fulfilled, not as a parent but as a person.
The cacophony goes away: Chances are if you have more than one child you had more than one noisemaking activity going on at the same time. Televisions, YouTube, iPods, text messages, even the occasional phone call – with lots of kids in the house there is usually lots of noise. Not to mention door slamming, toilet flushing, refrigerator opening and bickering. In your empty nest you will, actually, be able to hear yourself think – possibly for the first time in a long time.
You can get a good night’s sleep: From the time they are born until they leave home our kids find ways to keep us up at night – from 2 am feedings to midnight calls for rides home. You will still lie awake at night and worry about them – but they won’t be regularly waking you up as they come and go or entertain their friends.
Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. In a major life crisis or life-or-death situation, by all means, step in with guidance. But on an everyday basis, try your best to keep quiet. If you have a solid relationship with your child, he’ll/she’ll ask for your advice; he/she may not take your advice, but he’ll/she’ll appreciate what you have to say.
Suddenly; An idea germinates, What if I ask them, as a favor to me, to share with me at the end of each work week something in the last seven days that has impacted them – in any way?
And in return, I will promise:
to stop directing their life choices and decisions
to stop the guilt parenting
to stop obsessively equating the number of my encounters with each of them each week as a barometer of their depth of devotion
and to treasure their messages forever – just like I treasure them.
And I promise to work on creating a better me for them and my grandchildren by: Join an art class, volunteer in my community, look into continuing-ed classes, renew friendships. Explore this vast wonderful world of ours and share those lessons with them as they ask. Engage in other roles and ways of living, and Ill discover the confidence and rich well-being that can blossom with this freedom.