Empty Nest Syndrome: It’s Not All About the Kids Leaving

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.

Really?

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:

College Bound Kids?: You’re not on your own

College Bound Kids?: The Practical Stuff for Heading Overseas

College Bound Kids?: Changing Family Dynamics 

College Bound Kids?: After They’ve Gone

Walking the Walk: The Reality of the Empty Nest

About wordgeyser

Our anglo/american family used to live in four countries (USA, Canada, UK and the Netherlands) on two continents, separated by distance, time zones, circumstance and cultures. It has been a scary, enriching, challenging place to be. The only things guaranteed to get us through were a sense of humour and the amazing people met along the way. . . This year everything changed with a move for us from the Netherlands, – and a move along with us for our son and his wife from the UK – to Houston, Texas, the same city as our daughter. With our youngest in Vancouver, Canada, we are now all living on the same continent. How this happened, and more importantly why, will be the subject of this ongoing blog...
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18 Responses to Empty Nest Syndrome: It’s Not All About the Kids Leaving

  1. Eli says:

    hi wordgeyser,

    me and my wife were empty nesters as well and although my wife is a licensed marriage therapist we took it pretty hard. We decided to work hard and rekindle our relationship and reconnect by going on several adventures ranging from Tuscany, Jerusalem and even going on a Safari.

    While seeing the world we discovered we could live with less and invest more in our relationship. That’s when we had the great idea to offer this kind of experience to other couples as well

    So we created our website ViaSeminars.com
    Basically couples who struggle to rekindle their passion can go on a vacation, relax and at the same time confront head-on the core issues that have taken them in different directions.

    kind regards,
    Eli

  2. ExplatLondon says:

    Mmmm. Interesting. I found your blog after following a tweet re: Dutch Delights. Your lovely, lovely piece inspired me to cast aside my worries about going to the Netherlands in winter with my dh. We sent our last of three darling daughters off to university this year and embarked on our first year of empty nesters as expats. Right now, we’re having a great time (took our first vacation away without kids in 27 years!) but in the quiet hours far from “home”, I miss the laundry piles, mascara stains on my white towels and many hands in the kitchen. It has it’s ups and downs, doesn’t it? Some grieving for the old life amid the excitement of creating a new one. Can’t wait to read more…Thanks. 🙂

    • wordgeyser says:

      It’s difficult isn’t it? We raise our kids to let them go, but through those years they grow invisible tendrils to our hearts which we don’t realise are there till they go. The first and subsequent kids leaving, we eventually realise, are nothing to the feelings we have when the last goes. It’s not only about the child(ren) it’s about ourselves and our relationship with our spouse/ partner. I haven’t blogged on this subject recently because I don’t want to be the mom who can’t live without her kids, but have also been trying to understand the conflicting emotions too. The excitement of being ‘free’ to have ‘our’ time together, and the awful moments of grief that the stage of having our family living with us is over. And the enormity of being so much older than we thought. Oh Lord it’s an interesting time! Please keep in touch!

  3. expatlogue says:

    “There may be more to look back on than there is to look forward to”… I think this is a common fear. Our three children are all below eight so we have a while to go until that particular shake-up of the family dynamic, but we’re aware of the pitfalls. I guess awareness and patience will be our greatest tools in dealing with what’s to come.
    All throughout the process of childrearing I’ve experienced a powerful awareness of nostalgia – sometimes it feels like I’m constantly looking back with a wistful smile, reluctant to leave. But life moves irresolutely forward and we have to make plans for that too.
    Thanks for exploring something that doesn’t get much “air-time”.

  4. It seems so healthy to have such extensive discussion about a traumatic time. I think people who are reading about this transition and talking about this transition have the possibility of discovering the positives and helping each other gracefully through the negatives. I enjoyed your post.

    • wordgeyser says:

      Thanks Karen, appreciate your comment. Like everything else, feeling comfortable with any transition is key to adapting/ accepting it. Being honest about the possible difficulties ahead is the first step in making the process less scary and more manageable. I hope so!

  5. Knowing you well (and the Captain a tad), but also knowing your family, I know your hearts are pure and your familial bonds impeccable. When I married I believed it would be forever because of love, commitment and being on the same page. When I had children, I committed to them (in my mind) that I would do my level best to be a good mother and spouse to their father because I could think of nothing sadder than to live through one’s children and neglect the relationship that brought them into the world.
    Over the years I’ve been aware of the tugs and pulls that occur, and how easily one can get caught up in dealing with the minutiae of everyday life while missing the bigger picture. We’ve talked about never getting to the point where we look at each other and say ‘who are you?’ or ‘I want something different.’ With one out of the nest and one nearing leaving, I can DEFINITELY say that Empty Nest Syndrome exists. We’ve been preparing for it, and part of that is doing our best to maintain our relationship as it segues into a different chapter. (We’ve also been particularly careful not to overwhelm the child remaining at home; parental overload can be quite the downer.) I’ve been especially grateful for your wisdom, counsel, friendship and example in leading the way. Empty nest? Yes. It hurts like hell but with care, I do believe it can be the segue to something wonderful. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

    • wordgeyser says:

      Thanks for your insight Linda – this is definitely a life stage leaving many adrift and at a loss despite the planning and preparation beforehand. The marriage made the family possible, yet years of childrearing can diminish its importance and value without the couple being aware it has happened. The changes over the years may have been subtle and unnoticed, but suddenly, with an Empty Nest, the realisation of what the relationship was, and is now, can be a shock. Adjustment to being a couple again can be challenging on many levels, not least because it raises the question, “Is this what we both want?” Interesting times…

  6. DrieCulturen says:

    Hello Jane, Thanks you for this interesting post. This parenting journey is a real adventure. I have not reached the empty nest phase yet but I can imagine that it is challenging. There’s something I wonder about: I have read that expat families have a stronger bond ( in Dutch are “meer hecht”) than families that do not move around. Expat families have had many experiences and adventures together. It can make the adolescent phase the culture kid goes through more difficult. The teenager has to leave the cosy, comfortable and strongly bonded nest. Do you thinking this affects the empty nest syndrome? Greetings Janneke

    • wordgeyser says:

      Hi Janneke, Thanks for making your comment – I would agree, from what I’ve read and my own experience, that families who move around the globe do have stronger bonds than families who remain in one place. It does make the separations harder BUT the trade-off is that generally the kids are well balanced, settle quickly wherever they are and adapt to cultural differences more easily. They tend to be more open minded and curious to learn about new cultures. It does make it harder on parents I think, although knowing your child is happy and pursuing their dreams makes the transition easier. That said, I don’t know what we’d do without skype!

  7. Heidi says:

    I would imagine that this is a topic not frequently discussed, so I thank you and your husband for your earnestness and compassion.

    • wordgeyser says:

      Thanks for your kind words Heidi – I think this life stage is particularly tough as we’re supposed to be old and wise and have all the answers. Pity we’re not!

  8. kleinsusanv says:

    Timely. Oh, so timely. Thanks, Jane!

  9. The Captain in question says:

    …or was it “50 sheds of grey”?

  10. The Captain in question says:

    What I actually said was a good way to start the conversation was to mention “50 Shades of Gravy” – that’s the way to the heart of most normal men.

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