In just a few short weeks, I, like many of you, will be joining the elite group known as the “empty nesters”. This colorful and descriptive term was originally coined in the 1970s. It actually refers to a syndrome of symptoms including depression, sadness, and loss of identity associated with the last child leaving home—hence the nest being empty.
Traditionally, mothers have been the focus of this syndrome. This stands to reason as historically a mother’s role was defined as the creator of the nurturing home (the nest) and much of a woman’s identity was tied to the caregiver role. It is of no surprise then that when there is nobody left to nurture and care for, that a woman would have to begin the painful process of creating a new identity and purpose for herself.
However, current research clearly demonstrates that while both men and women can experience sadness and loss over sending the last child off to college or out into the world, it can also be a time of reinvention. In fact, a 2008 study revealed that because many women today have fulfilling careers and identities outside of the home that symptoms of the empty nest are significantly less. Also, the advancement in technology and the ability to digitally stay connected has made the transition easier. Subsequently, many couples actually reported a higher rate of marital satisfaction and stronger relationships with their children after they were out of the house (Parker, 2008).
Many articles have been written on how to cope with becoming an empty nester. In summary, they focus on the following:
Discover your own passions and cultivate them. With more time on your hands, rediscover what you enjoy. Learning new skills is an important component to creating purpose.
Focus and nurture your relationships (marriage and friendships). Make time to establish new routines including lunches, romantic dinners and spontaneous trips.
Let children take the lead on communication. Hovering or attempts to parent from a distance can only serve to undermine their confidence in themselves and often will create a wedge in the relationship. Remember they will make mistakes and experience failures but don’t cheat them out of them by trying to fix and rescue. Coping with failures is critical to the development of life long skills.
All of these strategies seem practical and useful, but I would also add that this should be a time of reflection. After all, the emptying of a nest demarcates the end of active parenting.
As with most transitional points in life, it is a time often filled with a myriad of feelings. Of course, there is the exciting prospects of having sex wherever and whenever you want and no more waiting up with worry until the car lights pull into the driveway. There is the reduced responsibilities of cooking and cleaning, and the list goes on. But it is also a time of reflection on the ending of a phase of life— active parenting. While my 102 year old grandmother reminds me that we are parents for life, the active part of parenting changes when we become empty nesters.
For all of you who are sending that last child off into the world, let me offer a few thoughts to think about this transition in a slightly different way.
First, if we stay with the image of emptying the nest, we need to turn the clock back and examine the creation of the nest. After all, this is the beginning of the life long journey of parenthood. Our job has been to create a safe haven for our children. A place where they felt secure, loved and nurtured. Unfortunately, the creation of that nest does not come with a manual that guides us through the process and the journey can feel long and tedious. Parts of the journey seemed intuitive, some lessons we learned through trial and error but most of it was a process filled with patience, commitment and unwavering love.
If we are successful, our children leave the nest prepared to face the world and all that it offers. Throughout this journey of parenthood, our goal is to develop and train our children to become independent and to no longer need us in the way that they once did. It is the double edge sword of parenting. We want them to be independent and self-sufficient as long as they still need us, ask permission and follow our guidance. It is no wonder that this phase of life creates such anxiety for both parents and children.
As I started to think about the ending of the active phase of parenting, words from the book, The Velveteen Rabbit rang through my head. I pondered the words and thought perhaps the years in between creating and emptying our nest, is actually our transition as parents into becoming Real.
“What is Real?”’ Real isn’t how you are made. It’s a thing that happens to you when a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, you become Real.”
“Does it hurt? Sometimes, but when you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” “Once you are Real you can’t become unreal again —It lasts for always. “
My answer now to people when they ask how it feels to become an empty nester. I tell them that I feel like I have completed the most important phase of my life. I tell them that I loved until it hurt, that I knew I couldn’t break because somebody needed me to be strong. I tell them that becoming an empty nester has made me Real.