Sociologists popularised the term ‘the empty nest syndrome’ in the 1970s. It’s a term used in women’s magazines, morning television shows, talkback radio and health professionals’ consulting rooms to encapsulate the depression, loss of purpose and crisis of identity that parents, especially mothers, supposedly feel when their children leave home. It’s a term that typically conjures up the demeaning stereotypical image of a depressed, middle-aged woman sitting in her child’s bedroom weeping as she struggles with the realisation that she is no longer needed now that her children have flown the coop.
All that I had absorbed over the years about ‘the empty nest’ indicated to me that it was meant to be a time of terrible loss for me and yet in many ways I looked forward to it. Certainly I experienced heartfelt grief as I first anticipated and then actually emptied my nest and let go of the significant role I had fulfilled for 25 years as a hands-on carer for my children. However, I was also aware of feelings of excitement and anticipation as I looked forward to the liberation from many of the duties that often now felt onerous.
Much has changed since ideas around the empty nest syndrome first surfaced in the 1970s. Firstly, women have increasingly become self-empowered, expressed through their fuller participation in the workforce and public life with an ability to assert themselves and their needs in the world. All this has led to women today gaining feelings of self-worth beyond the role of mother in a way that was often difficult for their own mothers’ generation. Secondly, and perhaps partly as a result of women challenging the world prescribed for them as mothers, many men have challenged the assumptions about what the role of father means. They have started to move beyond the limiting definition of ‘father as provider’ and have forged closer relationships with their children in ways their own fathers never did. And finally, rapid advances in communications mean that parents and young adults have an easy and cheap way to keep in touch. Cheap long-distance phone calls, the use of mobile phones, text messaging and emailing, and cheaper airfares mean that it is easier now than at any other time in modern-day life for parents and young adult children to re-create their relationship and find a balance between remaining in touch while living apart.
Fathers feel the empty nest too
From my research it would appear that the empty nest syndrome doesn’t exist in the way it might have been defined in the past, nor as it is still portrayed in today’s media. It would appear that fathers can be just as susceptible to feelings of loss as the nest empties, and in the long term may suffer even more than mothers. This could be for a variety of reasons.
• The increased desire in many men at midlife to forge a closer connection with their loved ones as a result of navigating midlife transition – a time of life when we yearn to bring into our life aspects that we have neglected – and for so many men this is in the area of relationship
• The stereotypical attitudes in our society about the father’s role as provider
• The greater difficulty men in our society experience in connecting with their feelings and finding a safe place to express them
• Often, too, throughout the family journey it is the mother who has been present at the children’s various milestones, such as starting school, and as a result many fathers are not as practised as mothers at grieving the various milestones in their children’s lives.
Today’s parents are more successful in re-creating their relationships
From Australian and overseas research on the area it would appear that parents today, in contrast to their own parents at this same stage of family life, are more able to successfully re-create their relationship with their children so that they remain attached while still honouring the new more adult relationship. From my observation and interviews it appears that even as young adults start at university, parents now seem to continue to be involved in a way that would have been seen as intrusive when I was at that age. And this involvement in young adult children’s lives doesn’t end after tertiary studies are completed. Empty nests are now refilling in record numbers as young adult children ‘boomerang’ back home. This can be the result of a variety of factors including the tough job market, extended education, drug and alcohol problems, delayed marriage, high housing costs, and the challenging economics of creating a solid base for yourself in today’s world.
Five quick tips for navigating the empty nest
Although every parent’s experience is different, as with any transition, we all need to accept that this stage of emptying our nest can place us in a paradox. For example, during the couple of years before emptying my nest I sometimes had an image of my three children as babies and wanted them still on my lap. At other times I felt enormous excitement at the thought of letting go of the daily ongoing physical and emotional responsibility of looking after children.
1. FEEL your feelings. As with any time of significant transition, strong feelings will come up. It is important to create personal space – go for a walk or a drive if necessary – to experience these feelings. I’ve done a lot of crying, sometimes without knowing exactly what for. My youngest son turned 21 a couple of weeks ago, and with family photos I made him a book of his first 21 years. While doing this I inevitably tapped into some pretty raw feelings – and I know this all helps me to move on and create a new life beyond the ‘family nest’.
2. CELEBRATE all that you have created in your parenting. It is such a huge role and all of us parents need to recognise what an extraordinary thing we have done in raising our children. Recently my daughter turned 25 and we planned to celebrate together a couple of nights after her actual birthday. On her birthday I decided I wanted to celebrate my quarter of a century of mothering. So in the evening I opened a bottle of wine, got out a large sheet of paper and some crayons and wrote down all the feelings and thoughts that came to mind when I thought about all the ups and downs of my 25 years of parenting.
3. NURTURE yourself. I now feel as though it is time to give back to myself what I have given to my children. I’m also aware that like many women of my generation, I missed out on quite a lot of mothering when young. So I feel as though I’m now catching up on a bit of the nurturing I missed out on from that time. And I’m aware that many men also missed out on this nurturing when young. My friends and I talk about ‘being gentle with ourselves’. This might involve just sitting in the sun reading, preparing a favourite meal, spending a nurturing weekend with a friend or writing in a journal your innermost feelings and thoughts.
4. Face your FEAR. If fear comes up, rather than getting busy so as to run away from it, I spend some time considering where it might be coming from. For example, a fear I noticed within me was around how my children would manage without me. Through counselling and self-reflection, I realised this was more to do with how difficult it was for me at times in my late teens as I left the family home after my mother died. I began to see that my children had more support than I had at this stage and that I had to separate out my own experiences on leaving the nest when young from what it was actually like for my children now.
5. Think CREATIVELY. Explore how you can bring into your life new ways of spending time with your children – times that work well for both of you. Also be creative about how you can start pursuing those interests you might have put on hold until now; perhaps you have already been doing some of this.
Robyn Vickers-Willis is a psychologist, public speaker and author of the best-selling books Navigating Midlife: women becoming themselves and Men Navigating Midlife and recently released Navigating the Empty Nest: re-creating relationships all by Wayfinder Publishing.
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