“Yes, I’m OK. I just…Well, you know JJ started kindergarten this week,” I felt a lump in my throat. “And he’s been in school for 3 days now…” Tears came to my eyes. “And I guess…it turns out…I’m not handling it so well!”
I was sad because I missed my son, and suddenly also my daughter who had already been going to school for two years. This seemed silly even to me because I still saw them every day minus those hours they spent in second grade and half-day kindergarten.
My tears were more about missing my little kids. I missed my babies, who were clearly not babies anymore. I missed new motherhood, because suddenly I was done with it; I could not call myself a new mom anymore. I had two school-age kids and I was suddenly mourning the days of their early childhoods.
My husband, being the wonderful man and dad that he is, understood this even when all I could choke out was, “I thought I was looking forward to this!” For years I had been anticipating the hours I’d have to myself once both kids were in school, but when it actually came time, life wasn’t quite what I’d expected.
This is what Empty Nest Syndrome feels like?
This was this first time I experienced empty nest syndrome. I didn’t think it would happen until my children got married or, at the soonest, left for college—I thought that’s when the nest was supposed to feel empty, so it took me by surprise when I was suddenly struggling with my sense of purpose during the hours my children were now both at school. I wasn’t expecting to feel so lost.
Turns out, it is not uncommon for parents to experience empty nest syndrome before their kids graduate and move away from home. Two years ago, Amy Friese, a stay-at-home mother of an 8-year old and a 10-year-old from Minnesota, was not expecting to go through a divorce and find herself childless every other week of the year. “Nobody gets married thinking it will only last a set number of years,” said Amy. “You plan on being married for a lifetime.” She says that when the divorce happened and she ended up sharing custody of her children 50% of the time, she felt lonely and as if she had completely lost her identity. “I felt I was no longer a mother because for two weeks out of the month, my kids weren’t living under my roof.” Without the same sense of purpose she once had, Amy found herself feeling sad and aimless.
Empty nest syndrome can affect moms and dads at different stages of parenting and for different reasons. Whether it’s the first time all of the children are in school, sharing a custody arrangement, or the solitude that accompanies college or marriage, empty nest parents seem to share a sense of loss and lack of purpose. There is an emptiness in the home and life where a child once occupied the majority of a parent’s thoughts and time. Now there is aimlessness to their routine and habits; they’re suddenly unsure of what do to or perhaps even who they are.
With time and practice, empty nest syndrome does pass. It may take a while to get used to a new normal, and not without some intentionality.
If you are in or approaching an empty nest transition, consider at these pieces of wisdom from parents who have been through it before:
Allow yourself to feel sad.
This might be the most important strategy for getting through an empty nest transition—it is absolutely OK to cry over the loss of time with your children. Crying is the way our brains are able to process the emotions of adversity and clear the neural pathways for rational thinking. So if you’re feeling sad about not having your children around as much as they once were, be sure to allow yourself to grieve properly over this. It will help you find acceptance of the situation and allow you to move forward.
Find ways to stay connected to your children.
You’ve been accustomed to being able to talk to, play with, snuggle, hug, and connect with your kids at any time. Now they’re away from you for more of the time, so you need to find other ways to connect. Leave love notes in their bags or lunches to find at school. Use technology to stay connected over long periods of time; text messaging and Facetime can be relationship-savers. You can even hand-write letters and send care packages for adding a personal touch to long-distance communication.
Rediscover yourself and your spouse.
“With empty nest syndrome, for the first time in years, your children are not the first thing you think about,” said Chris, a mom of two grown children from Illinois. “You can more easily focus on yourself and your spouse.” So take time to get to know your spouse in this new phase of life, and plan activities to try together. Find a new hobby for yourself or rekindle an old one that had been pushed to the back burner when kids came along. Discover what else (besides your children!) brings you joy.
Turn to family, faith, and friends.
“When you’re sad, it’s easy to want to stay alone in your sadness,” said Amy. But she recommends making a point of not isolating yourself, which, for her, meant staying connected to her family and leaning in to her faith throughout the time following her divorce. Get out each day, make plans with someone with whom you’ll look forward to talking, let your friends help you during the lonely times.
Whether this means starting work again, volunteering at your child’s school, coaching a sports team, or taking a class that’s interested you, pursuing your own extra curricular endeavors will give you a welcome outlet and help you rediscover your passions.
Make reconnection a priority.
When you do see your children again—whether it’s after school, the start of a custody week, school breaks, or major holidays—focus on renewing your relationship. Use one-on-one dates, nightly tuck-ins, and heart-to-heart conversations to continue getting to know your kids and communicate the message of unconditional love. No matter the distance between you or time spent apart, show that you always value the relationship you have.
Remember that your purpose as a parent still exists.
Courtney, a mother of two from Oregon, says that just because children are not at home does not mean they don’t need their parents anymore. “As an adult, I returned to the nest after a mildly traumatic year. I needed my family so much more than they might have realized.” Just because kids don’t spend all their hours under your roof doesn’t mean that they don’t continue to need the secure relationship you share. The day-to-day logistics might shift, but that relationship will always be a child’s foundation. Keep it strong.
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