Empty Nest Syndrome is not a clinical diagnosis, but it is a sorely felt and uncomfortable phenomenon, the symptoms of which often go unnoticed or may not be acknowledged.
For independent young women and men, leaving home marks a natural rite of passage to a new life. No longer tethered by a well-worn domesticity and imbued with a spirit of adventure, they set out to explore the world on their own terms. It should be a hugely exciting time, and, just as newborns were celebrated when they arrived, so the fledging of young adults is momentous and should also be feted.
But it can have a devastating effect on those left behind.
Take a walk down memory lane. Birth necessitated an immense amount of planning - lives and homes were reordered to make way for the life-changing arrival; parents attended ante-natal classes where they formed bonds with fellow parents that would often last a lifetime; and extended family and friends gathered around in supportive anticipation.
Parents’ lives pooled into creating a nurturing home where their children could discover, grow and develop: devoted mothers and fathers removed fairy wheels and provided comfort and encouragement while difficult lessons were learnt about falling off and getting up again; they read bedtime stories and plastered cuts; they helped to assemble tiny models, tended fish tanks and left reindeer footprints in the garden; and later, they retreated when teenage bedrooms became private sanctuaries, allowing their blossoming offspring the space to forge their own identities, unsure whether to need or not to need; ball-gowns, bow ties, learning to drive and deciding on what to do after school.
And then it was over.
Time, seemingly steady, adopted a disquieting pace and suddenly that warm place was no longer filled with bubbling, adolescent life – there was always enough hot water, and no-one fought for the front seat any more.
Mary Oliver, Pulitzer Prize poet and natural philosopher, wrote the following sage words:
“to live in this world
you must be able
to do three things
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go”
But oh… the letting go! There is no preparation; there is no celebrated rite of passage; there is no way to anticipate the emptiness. And the sadness and, sometimes, the pain, seems physical.
Research has found that parents who have experienced such loss and reduced sense of purpose, are more vulnerable to depression, alcoholism, identity crises and marital conflict; and stay-at-home mums and dads, more committed through the exclusive intensity of their parental role, are, understandably, more prone to the effects of ENS.
ENS takes many forms, as evidenced in a recent workshop for suffering mothers, which revealed shared core concerns for their children:
Are they safe in their new homes, residences and cars?
Because there is little to no contact, do I assume that all is OK?
Are they eating properly / sleeping well?
Are they coping with the new job / studies? Have they made friends and are they happy?
…along with very real concerns of their own:
I am feeling lonely and sad; is it normal to feel this low?
I am finding it hard to move out of this negative spiral;
I want to return to work, but I’m not sure that I have the same capacity;
How do I go about doing this? Is my training still valid?
What do I do with my time?
Further discussions revealed different perspectives: Some found that they lost the closeness with children moving away although others mentioned that relationships had improved, this in turn enabling better coping mechanisms for each. In addition, some mothers mentioned that freed up time allowed for more engagement with younger siblings to positive effect. Others found that their offspring were not fully independent, still needing to be shown the ropes around banking and insurance, or seeing a doctor or panel beater. But all concurred that social media was indeed a blessing, allowing for contact via skype, cell, Whatsapp and texting.
ENS, as with any transition, has to be seen as a process: healing begins with a simple, if tough, acknowledgement of its existence, and a compassionate acceptance of uncomfortable feelings, including for some, a sense of guilt at not having been with their children as much as they would have liked.
Moving through the months that follow with an awareness of the shift and the void that has been created, is useful; equally helpful is the capacity to view the move as a positive, necessary and exciting development for the child. By focusing on these processes, concerns for the child diminish, thoughts turn inward, and things begin to even out.
Time becomes a permissible luxury: it allows parents to catch up with old friends, or make new ones; to rekindle hiking-, book- or supper-clubs; to take up old and new hobbies, read more, research, study or set off to work again. Marriages may be rekindled or rescued, meditation moved from intention into action, and charities may be bolstered by committed engagement.
But no transition is ever linear: this movement through the empty nest adds to the multiplicity of all of you and shapes the ‘you’ to come. Acknowledgement, awareness, grace, self-compassion, and acceptance are vital to build a resilient foundation from which proactive planning and forward movement can enrich your life.
Additional shared findings from the workshop were that ENS became more difficult when facing the prospect of growing old, particularly when exacerbated by menopause and its potentially deleterious impact on identity. Although there is a need to come to terms with these factors, the key learning from the workshop was the need for collaboration and preparation around ENS: those whose children had left home, felt that advance knowledge of what to expect and how to cope, would have been enormously helpful in waylaying the malaise; whilst for those not yet affected by the eventuality, listening to the reality was a strong stimulus to prepare themselves for the approaching empty nest.
Connecting with others in workshops and groups provides a safe space to share one’s feelings and emotions, which, in turn, fosters a camaraderie and bonding in parents’ shared distress.
Recent times and fiscal pressures have seen children returning home after university or college, commonly known as the boomerang effect. While some parents might have grown used to their liberated lifestyle and delighted in juggling their nine-to-fives with reduced cooking, washing and caretaking, others rejoice wholeheartedly in their children’s return.
However, whether the children return or not, the time of separation is a life changer. Time can be used to good effect to self-nurture and develop, so that later when adult meets adult, there is once again that familial confluence. But this time, the rivers meet on equal terms, and parents and children regard each other with new eyes, create new boundaries based on mutual respect, and learn to co-exist independently, resting on the assurance that all is as it should be.