The youngest child is off to college, the oldest is married and you have more freedom than you could have ever dreamed of. So, why does your house feel so empty? And why do you feel so alone?
Before play dates and first dates, friends and social events filled your home. Now, it is quieter than you ever remembered it and you and your spouse have a hard time filling the void.
‘Empty nest syndrome’ is very real, and a “necessary developmental stage,” according to Dr. Molyn Leszcz, psychiatrist-in-chief at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.
The term may not be found in many medical textbooks, but the effects of it are present in a great majority of families.
Classically, they are most strongly felt by mothers who are seeing one or more children off to college or down the aisle. But, with modern women working just as much as men, fathers are now sharing the burden of empty nest syndrome.
Having said that, women are still at a disadvantage when it comes to this syndrome; an empty house is often paired with the onset of menopause and increasingly dependent elderly parents. The abundance of changes can be overwhelming and lead to mild or even severe feelings of depression. Feeling sad and needing time to readjust to life alone with your spouse is normal, but when a child’s departure unleashes severe feelings of depression, treatment may be necessary.
The situation does not need to be quite as troubling, as long as people “anticipate it is going to happen,” says Leszcz. “As long as you can plan, prepare and anticipate for it, it will not hit like a ton of bricks when it does happen,” Leszcz added.
In large families, the most difficult times will be when the first child leaves. As parents get used to the different bond they create with the child that has already left home, subsequent departures can be a little easier, until the final one.
Although typically the empty nest syndrome hits hardest when children leave home, for some the feelings of loss mostly present themselves if children move geographically far away. “At a personal level, although we had gone through the university departure three times already, what really hit hardest was our oldest son leaving the city this year. Now all three kids live far away,” says Leszcz.
Empty nest syndrome has evolved over the decades, and it is important to realize what modern day parents go through is very different from the feelings their own parents coped with thirty years ago.
“It was a much more powerful force when women were home and did not have investments and activities outside the home that contributed to their self-esteem and identity,” says Leszcz. “How you prepare for this change is to have as broad a base as possible to your sense of identity and have multiple roles instead of having everything embedded into the single role of being a mom, or a dad for that matter.”
Single-parent homes and families with only one child have the hardest time adjusting to this new phase in life, Leszcz said. The less diversified a parent is in terms of where they get their sense of self, the harder the “empty nest” will hit. Single parents to whom caring for their child or children is a central role in life are most at risk. They should recognize that as their children grow and become more independent, they themselves should invest more of their time in their career and social life away from the kids. These investments will pay off when their children increasingly create a life outside of the family home, and eventually move away.
Staying in touch is an important element to creating a new bond with grown-up children. Just because the kids have left home, does not mean they stop being your kids.
Parents sometimes alienate their children by trying to hold on to their “parenting role” too strongly. Once grown, children will continue needing parental support, but will resist too much meddling in their lives.
To develop a healthy relationship, parents and children alike need to strike a balance of contact and support that meets both their needs. This balance is as personal as the parent-child relationship, and it does not develop overnight. Expect some growing pains along the way, but the renewed relationship you built with your children and loved ones will enrich the rest of your life.