I promised myself I wouldn’t write anything further on the empty nest syndrome. Not because there’s nothing to write about, but because it’s an emotive subject for many, with parents on either side of the fence and the majority just getting through.
Regular readers will know our youngest child left home to start university in Vancouver at the end of August. Four thousand seven hundred and ninety three miles away by plane. I’ve written articles about the preparing for the empty nest, and one about the reality of the empty nest when we returned from taking him to Canada.
That was all I was going to say on the subject until today.
This weekend my other half raised the Empty Nest subject. He’s been spending a fair bit of time reading up and pondering the sage words of writers everywhere and he’s a tad miffed.
The empty nest is something we’ve been preparing for over several years. Like any other life transition (birth, death, marriage, divorce, moving, job loss, retirement) changes take a period of adjustment before we can feel comfortable and come to terms with them.
It seems there are writers from the school of ‘pulling-yourself-together’ who believe good preparation, awareness and throwing yourself into a new pastime are all that’s required to alleviate the unsettled feelings of those whose children have left home, and who are readjusting back to being a couple.
Interestingly, according to my spouse, most of these epistles have been written by parents who still have one or two children in the family home. Some believe there is no such thing as the Empty Nest Syndrome, that it is a myth perpetrated by the feeble-minded and over-emotional who obviously have nothing in life to distract them from something as natural and normal as children leaving home.
We have friends of all ages, from all walks of life and all cultures who are approaching or in the throes of experiencing an empty nest. They are savvy, switched-on, energetic, self-aware and fulfilled people. Those parents not in paid employment are involved in unpaid work offering their services to school boards, charities, organisations or following their passions.
They are re-inventing themselves, pursuing new interests and no longer worry about their offspring with the same intensity (it’s hard to worry about little Johnny when you can’t see what he’s up to). There is the freedom of having your house back – no longer concerned about being inappropriately dressed with teenagers in the house, no withering looks or rolled eyes at behaviours not expected in those over the age of 20, to say nothing of a clean house and less laundry. And yet…
It is not as simple as taking up a new hobby, decorating the house or heading off with your backpack. Nor is it about the children not being there – for many, ‘the children’ have been gradually weaning themselves from the familial breast for several years.
It is rather more to do with the parents themselves and who they perceive themselves to be now their roles must be re-defined. There is an acute awareness that up to this point life has been lived looking forwards, striving, building, consolidating. Now it is possible to pause, take time to reflect and look back, perhaps for the first time. And face the possibility that your life hasn’t been as fulfilling/ successful/ productive as you’d assumed it would be when you were twenty. The reality there may be more to look back on than there is to look forward to. A sobering thought.
For many couples this is the point where they wonder how these changes will impact their marriage.
Ah yes, the marriage. The secret concern of everyone. Even the most loving couples have moments of panic when they wonder what will remain once the children have left and the hurly burly and chaos of family life is no longer there to cover any cracks. Is the spark that drew them together still there or is it time to draw a line, re-evalute and go in separate directions – to find the personal happiness/ fulfillment that has withered under the responsibility of parenthood.
Who knows? The seas are unchartered, the marital boat is a little battered and knocked but now it’s truth time. Do you go forward together or apart? Is one partner even aware this may be an issue for the other?
My husband must be the most widely read spouse on anything related to the menopause, the empty nest and marital breakdown in the over 50s. If he spouts any more statistics about the number of women who initiate divorce after the children leave home, he may find himself amongst them.
I know how lucky I am to have a life partner who makes it his business to be aware of possible bumps in the road ahead so, should the worst happen, we’ll be as prepared as we can be to face them. From checking the weather when travelling, to understanding that some days his wife will wonder how the hell she ended up in a foreign country, alone except for the dog, while he travels and our adult children are scattered over the globe. And have the sense to talk when it’s needed and leave her be when it’s not.
We are not naive enough to think we are immune from marital breakdown, we talk about what each of us expects/ wants to achieve in the remainder of our lives. Things we’d like to do together and things we want do alone. We’d like to share the future together but, speaking for myself, I’d rather my spouse follow his dreams than feel shackled in a relationship where he can’t. I believe he feels the same. Hopefully we can steer the boat together.
It is not a bad thing for a couple to evaluate their relationship, and each other, at this stage of life and this point in the marriage. The majority do. But holding up a mirror to a marriage can be tough.
Because they’ve been (and remain) successful parents doesn’t mean they have what’s needed to maintain a healthy, successful marriage which will work for both of them in the future. One, or both, may not want to expend the necessary emotional energy on getting a marriage back on track. They may wish, for a variety of reasons, to go it alone. To charter a course from here can be challenging and distressing, even if it’s what both want, more so if only one party wants to leave the marriage.
So much for the Empty Nest being a myth – it is a very real, significant life stage which needs careful handling for many. Each marriage, family and life circumstances are different, there is no right or wrong way to work through it.
The good news is that having spent time sitting in the boat, feeling a little adrift, those who have made the journey before report high levels of life satisfaction, even if they have to weather a few storms to get there. Like everything else, it’s part of the journey.
And for the record several of my friends have found 50 Shades of Grey a great way to initiate conversation with their spouse…
Previous articles on preparing for the empty nest and children leaving home: