Graduations are close at hand; proms are in full swing. Tens of thousands of young men and women are graduating from high school and college. Many of these young people are the last to graduate in a family. Parents have been looking forward to this day when they can finally proclaim, “free at last.” This is the time when there are no children left in the house and parents get to come and go as they please without having to think about babysitters or attending some school function or be a soccer mom. Many parents have looked forward to the day when they will be able to take those extended vacations or simply get to know one another as someone other than Mom and Dad. As freeing as this time may be for most parents, it can also be a time when many parents will be facing what has been called the “empty nest syndrome.”
For working parents they will arrive home to an empty house, an empty bedroom. The door doesn’t slam, the TV isn’t blaring, and there is no rock music and heavy bass booming through closed doors. The dinner table has an empty space where a cellphone attached to an adolescent once sat. For the first week or month this might seem like a relief, a grand reprieve from chaos and constant demands for time and attention. For the at-home mom the entire day may seem empty. The errands have been reduced to a minimum, there is no lunch to prepare or reminders to deliver or crises to solve. There is no momma to the rescue. Mommy has been retired from her job, a job that had pretty much defined her for 18-22 years; now she is just a mother, not a Mommy.
For some parents the empty nest syndrome may occur gradually and for others it might be quite sudden. Too few parents plan for this time in their life. Many have said that they are ready especially since their child “was hardly home anyhow.” But then they find that there is a big difference between being hardly home because they are busy with their life and come and go, on the one hand, and no longer living at home and not coming back, on the other.
There are some parents who unconsciously have fostered their child’s dependency on them in order to avoid having to deal with the empty nest. Their life has revolved around their child and gave them a sense of purpose. Rather than facilitating their child’s autonomy, they have created a co-dependence where the child has difficulty functioning their own without parental involvement. These children learns to depend on the parents long after graduating from college for financial support, room and/or board, transportation, etc. These parents make all sorts of excuses for why this is necessary without ever examining their own participation in creating the dependence. It their way of avoiding having to deal with the empty nest and confront themselves with the question of how will I live my life without having a child to look after. They don’t ask themselves the question, “who am I if I am not a parent?”
A parent’s job is to facilitate their children’s autonomy by helping them separate from their parents and learn to navigate in the world on their own. As part of that process parents should serve as a model of someone who has individuated from their own parents and has developed an autonomous life that is separate from their role as a parent.
Hence, not only is creating a rich and varied life important for a parent’s own personal development and for being prepared for the empty nest, but it is important as a model for one’s children to see that their parents have a life after parenting; it is important that a child know that their parents can have a life that does not center on their child. Children need to know that they do not have the responsibility of being a source of meaning and purpose for their parents.
Human beings are social, mental, spiritual, and physical. Each of these areas need attention. The following can serve as a guide for both preparing for and dealing with the empty nest:
- It is important that you have a hobby. A hobby is an activity that you find engaging, creative, and fulfilling. It reduces stress, gives you focus, and keeps your brain active. Such activities as collections, painting, cooking, reading, photography, writing, learning to play a musical instrument, taking a class, learning a new language, developing a skill, and the like, can be a source of personal gratification and develop a greater self-esteem. Learning something new exercises your brain and expands your knowledge.
- Developing a social life with other people who have similar interests to yourself. Participating in an activity with others, engaging in meaningful conversation, and sharing experiences with others fulfills the human need for community outside of your immediate family.
- Volunteering with a charity is important for your self-esteem as well as giving you a sense of purpose. It can fulfill the need to give to others rather than only one’s family. It adds to your sense of community and expands your world beyond work and family.
- Engaging in self-care is both empowering and nurturing. Such activities as a regular exercise program, yoga, meditation, hiking, walking, Pilates, etc., relieve stress, and enhances your sense of well-being.
Imagine yourself engaged in some or all of the above. Imagine how you might feel if you were fully engaged in your life. Imagine how your children would view you and describe your life to their friends. And then imagine your nest; would it feel empty?
[Dr. Dreyfus is a nationally recognized clinical psychologist, relationship counselor, sex therapist, and life coach in the Santa Monica - Los Angeles. The profits from his latest book, LIVING LIFE FROM THE INSIDE OUT along with his other five books, are being donated to charity through the website Book Royalties for Charity and can be purchased through Amazon.com. Please become a friend on his Facebook Fan Page by indicating "like" on the page by clicking here. You can also find more tools to help you experience a more fulfilling life by clicking here to visit his website.]