Empty nest. It sounds sad those two words, and can feel awful if all roads lead to this unfamiliar place for you. Just as your children did not come with a help manual (and you needed one, right?), negotiating this time in your life can feel really hard. Have you devoted your life to raising your children and neglected, or lost parts of yourself in the process? Like many women, raising children has been your sole (and soul) occupation, and one of the most important roles of your life. And when your only or last child goes off to college, it can feel like they've taken your life with them. The years you've devoted to raising children doesn't leave much time for self-reflection, especially if you also had a job outside of the home. You and your partner or spouse may feel light years away from the couple you once were. Suddenly, with all this alone time, you are forced back into the role of being a "twosome" again, but what may be missing is the connection that you haven't felt in a very long time. This is the time when parents need to redefine their roles and repopulate their lives with meaningful passions and even a new focus. It's not uncommon to experience empty nest syndrome after their youngest child leaves home -- you feel lost, and without your familiar identity.
The rate of divorce tends to rise at this time as couples find themselves detached and without the skills needed to reconnect to an earlier time of attachment, intimacy and togetherness. It's not just couples who struggle with loneliness and emptiness when their children leave home, single parents are especially vulnerable to experiencing a void during this period. Adjusting to "losing your children to their own lives" can take time and a little work to close the wound and begin to heal. It's not unusual for parents to sink into depression, sadness and sense of loss when children leave home. While adjusting, good friends, a supportive network and even a therapist can help sad parents grieve this challenging time and develop ways to cope. Here are six tips to help ease the transition from the life you once knew to the life you hope to have:
- Give in to the sadness - Many find it helpful to indulge the sadness, "wallow" if you will, until you are tired of crying, and ready to get on with your life. The key, however, is to put a box around this period of "indulging the pain," release some grief, then be done with it, mostly. It is grief, plain and simple -- the loss of your former life needs to be processed and mourned. With time, you should begin to feel more hopeful and have a sense that you will have a different and hopefully satisfying life ahead of you. It's also a time when many parents think about all the things they meant to do or teach their kids along the way. Write these things down if that helps. Many young adults are open to having a different kind of relationship with parents as they mature. This is a nice time to finish whatever feels incomplete with your children and give them guidance they still need into their twenties and beyond.
- Rest, love yourself and do self-care - rest if you need to. It's a big and all-consuming process getting your kids ready and off to college. Adrenaline and the busy days have gotten you through the preparation and packing phases. As your child settles in to their new experience (and they likely will have their own mixed-bag of emotions), the exhaustion may hit you. Do whatever you think will help you through this period: nap, do restorative yoga, read books, go on a retreat, visit a day spa, get a couples massage, garden, and so on. Relax and reward yourself. When you're ready, develop a plan of action for becoming active again.
- Reconnect with people - your children and their activities probably represented the largest portion of your day and even your social life, whether single or married. Reconnect with old friends and make some new friends. If you're single join a support group, especially if emotional problems, loneliness or depression is an issue. If you feel ready, consider seeking out other singles and reentering the dating scene.
- Rediscover old hobbies and reinvest in your career - what did you used to do when you had more time to yourself? What types of activities did you and your spouse do together before the kids? Try to add some of these things back into your life in an effort to fill the void. Create a book club, watch films, start a group with other parents, take interesting photographs or do whatever moves you. I have a friend who started a collage business. She's very happy, and busy! This is an excellent time to reinvest in your career and figure out what resources available to you. What would your ideal job situation look like if you could do anything? Do an inventory of your skills, personal traits, knowledge and past achievements and work on your networking and Linkedin profile. This can be a real self-esteem booster. If you haven't worked in years, hire a career counselor or a skill-building life coach.
- Exercise - feeling sad for extended periods of time is no way to live, and hard on the body. We know that exercise releases endorphins and can improve your mood. If doing this at home feels lonely and isolating, join a gym either alone or with your partner -- you can feel healthier and bond at the same time. When you're too depressed to exercise (as in, you can't get your shoes tied), start with very small steps. Practice just putting the sneakers on without the intention of exercising or move around the house barefoot. Find your workout "costume" and see if that inspires you a bit. Baby steps -- 5-10 minutes of body movement. My clients love rebounders because they're fun and put some play back in your life.
- Remember your dreams - besides having children,what did you long for before the kids? Did you have dreams, and what were they like then? Are some of them possible now or can you create new ones? Could you use this time to finish college or go to graduate school? Did your dreams of learning Italian fall away? It's never to late to learn a romance language. This may be a good time to volunteer in your community or start a small business. Revisiting the dreams and activities you once had not only keeps idle hands and minds busy, but also provides a deep sense of personal enrichment and builds hope.
If after a period of time (it's different for everyone, but people will start poking you!), you find yourself still struggling and feeling stuck, find a professional to speak with about how to grieve and get on with your life, and how to create purpose and meaning for yourself going forward. Talking with a psychotherapist or psychologist who has experience with loss and change is one of the best ways to find your footing through this difficult life transition. If you are still married, bring your spouse along to sessions so that you can work through the difficult, complicated emotions. It's important to learn to work together and support each other during this time (think teamwork). One of you may appear to be doing better than the other, but your partner may be suffering too -- it just may look different. Men and women tend to handle change and loss in different ways.