Parenting

Happiness Is an Empty Nest (or Can Be)

Just as our kids need to find their way in life, so, too, do we parents have a great chance to rediscover ourselves at this unique time

When her youngest of four children left home for college, Kate Helms of Beavercreek, Ohio, expected to hate being an “empty nest” mom — and worried about having so much time on her hands. The reality has been far different for Helms and her husband.

“I’m starting to do things for me. I’m still a mom,” she said in a Facebook post. “They’re just not in my face all day. Man, that’s bliss.”

It’s hard to know what birds experience when their young fly off to build their own nests, but for humans the emotions run deep. We remember holding our children from the very first moments they were born.

We remember all the skinned knees and so much more. The role of parent is so integral to one’s identity that later, when the kids leave for college or for full-time work, it can be excruciating to let go. Crying late at night or at other times can be common in the initial weeks; it’s as if someone died.

Love notwithstanding — not everyone feels this way about the so-called Empty Nest Syndrome. And experts say that it’s typically healthier for everyone involved when children make their own way once they’re ready.

“Parents should be proud and delighted when their kids move on and out to the next phase of their lives,” said Barbara Greenberg, Ph.D, a Connecticut-based psychologist and co-author of the book “Teenage as a Second Language: A Parent’s Guide to Becoming Bilingual.”

From their mid-teens on, kids are trying out their wings, experts say. Teens distance themselves from their parents in often unsettling ways as they take the first stumbling steps toward adulthood. The therapist’s term for this is “individuation,” a process in which young people hone views that are distinct from those of their parents and other authority figures.

For moms and dads, the adult son or daughter who’s often around can be a plus for all. Having another person to help with occasional grocery shopping, check up on grandparents, or lend a hand when guests or friends come over is important — but there’s so much more. It’s truly satisfying overall to know that a child has grown into a responsible member of society, even if that young adult is still living in the room he or she occupied as a child.

But adulthood doesn’t necessarily kick in when it’s “supposed to,” even by the time of college graduation. Some parents try to shrug off a lack of effort or involvement in the household — just as they look the other way when their kids keep late-night teenager hours or say they need to take the car, rather than ask for permission. Such behavior, however troubling, can also be within the realm of normalcy.

This stage of life, given good health, can offer more possibilities than restrictions.

“The young-adult child can be a joy and an integral part of the family — but can also be detached and isolated,” Greenberg said. “If I were a parent in that situation, I would take a closer look. Is your child also isolating from friends? Is he or she lethargic and doing little to get to the next phase, which is to move on and out? And is this a change in behavior?”

Greenberg also said, “If the answer is yes to one or more of these questions, I would suggest the parents drill down a little further and look for signs of depression, stress and/or anxiety.”

Parents are still growing, too. Even in marriages that have remained strong over the years, the time before the children came along can feel like the proverbial past life. But there’s much to be said for a stage of life together that, given good health, can offer more possibilities than restrictions.

This can be a time to renew or restore whatever couples had put off to raise their kids. Important friendships that may have fallen by the wayside while parents were driving the kids to baseball or soccer games, helping with homework or projects, or shopping endlessly for clothes and items needed for school — these can be nurtured again. The same applies to classes parents may have long wanted to take. With confidence that the kids are well on their way in life, one can fill what could otherwise seem a gaping emptiness.

Then comes perhaps the now-foreign concept: date nights. A couple suddenly on their own again no longer need to rush back home for the kids. And if a parent is solo in the wake of a divorce, this is the time to get back into the game again — if this is indeed what’s missing in one’s life.

Whatever the situation, the emptying of the nest should be a time for congratulations, not sorrow or discouragement. We never stop loving our children — but their adulthood is a time for them to build their own lives, as we’ve demonstrated to them.

“This is the launching phase,” said Greenberg, “when relationships with kids and parents enter a more mature and exciting new stage. This should be a celebratory phase!”

Sharon Greenthal, a writer in Long Beach, California, expected to be sad when the younger of her two children left for college. But while she missed both her kids, Greenthal felt mostly relief.

“My husband and I found ourselves having a wonderful time together, which to be honest we were not sure would happen,” she said. “We had spent our entire marriage as parents, as our daughter was born less than a year after we were married. We began to plan for the future for just the two of us — and rediscovered why we fell in love so many years ago.”