Empty Nest Syndrome, which refers to “feelings of sadness and loss when the last child leaves home,” has been a well-known concept for decades. Movies and plays have been written about it, and countless articles and books continue to advise parents on how to prepare for and deal with the supposedly inevitable grief they will feel when their children grow up and move away.
But empty nesting doesn’t have to be the sad event it’s made out to be. In fact, there are many reasons why you can and should enjoy living in an empty nest.
Yes, you miss your children, and you may be worried about how they’ll fare out there on their own. But take a minute to congratulate yourself for having raised one or more children who have the ability and the desire to venture into the world on their own, whether they’re off to college, a new job or some other adult venture or new phase of life.
Sharon Greenthal, who writes about parenting young adults, believes the experience of your children moving out should not be heartbreaking. Although it marks a change, Greenthal writes, it is “what you have been working so hard for, all those years…where you hoped your child would go, what you wanted your child to do, with all of your heart.”
She points out that the alternative—children remaining at home rather than achieving independence—is not a scenario most parents would relish, and that coming home to an empty nest is not the worst trauma a parent can experience. In fact, it may be the ultimate accomplishment as a parent.
Psychologists have found that empty nesters have a mindset far from the depression and loss of purpose commonly associated with this phase of life. Instead, parents adjusting to life without their kids at home are reporting greater satisfaction in their close relationships. In addition to forming new, more mature bonds with their children, parents are also finding the time to reconnect with their own siblings, for example.
If you live with a spouse or partner, you might need to get used to being a couple again, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. The two of you now have the freedom to rediscover yourselves and each other and to pursue activities without taking your children’s needs and preferences into account, even if this means simply spending time together in your newly quiet house.
If you raised your child or children by yourself and now live alone, you may feel more of a literal and emotional “emptiness” when they move away. But the silver lining to this cloud is that you, similar to a young person moving into their first solo apartment, can now focus on yourself and explore many different paths for the first time in probably a long time.
Often, when children grow up and move away, parents find that they have more money, more free time or both. More money and time can lead to increased access to new and different opportunities.
After experiencing mid-life challenges that included their children leaving for college, Felice Shapiro and Ronna Benjamin founded the website betterafter50.com, an online women’s magazine that hosts live community events. On their site, they advocate filling a newly empty home with a host of hobbies or even a new pet, and generally embracing the happiness of being empty nesters, or as they prefer, “free birds.”
Perhaps with the kids gone, you’ll be able to travel more, whether to your favorite city or a country you’ve always wanted to explore. You could spend your extra time volunteering or developing a neglected skill. You could even consider going back to school, changing careers or altering your work schedule.
The main point is to embrace the opportunity for change that your new situation offers.
Now that the number of people who live in your home full-time has decreased, you’re free to make changes in terms of decorating, decluttering or renovating.
Most parents are reluctant to immediately transform a child’s bedroom into a walk-in closet (After all, you do want them to come back to visit, right?) but there are many changes that won’t make your home any less welcoming for students returning over Thanksgiving break. Even if you just throw away some of the clutter that’s been accumulating for decades, that’s plenty.
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You may even consider moving to a new home. If you moved to your current town for its school system, consider whether it’s still the place for you, now that none of your kids are in school. Maybe you’d prefer to downsize from a multi-bedroom home to an apartment, or trade the yard your kids played in for a condo where someone else mows the lawn. Or perhaps you’d like to return to the city after years in the suburbs, or leave the city for the quiet of the countryside.
If you’re feeling lonely now that your children are living elsewhere, keep in mind that this may not always be your living situation. Those kids who just left may soon return. In fact, a recent analysis by the Pew Research Center found that for people between 18 and 34, living with parents has become the most common arrangement.
There’s also the possibility that your own parents may need to move in with you, for convenience or care-taking.
Finally, your children are likely to have children of their own eventually, and you could decide to care for your grandchildren while your children are at work or on vacation.
When it comes to empty nesters, it’s easy to get caught up in descriptions of depression and loss; but as clever as the metaphor may have seemed when it was coined in the 1970s, you’re not a bird (not that anyone knows how birds truly feel about their fledglings finally learning to fly, anyway), and your “nest” isn’t empty. You still live in it, and you—along with your spouse, partner or anyone else who lives with you—define the terms of how you will continue to fill it.
Article Written By: Johnna Kaplan, The Hartford