When I was raising young children, I often reflected on the quote “the days are long, but the years are short” by Gretchen Rubin, bestselling author and one of today’s most thought-provoking observers of human nature. It made sense to me. I would wait (not so patiently) at the door, frustrated and weary, for my husband to return home from work after a 12-hour day. All I wanted was to pop the fussy baby into his arms, finally free to take a shower and have some time alone. Yet, each year – usually around the time of each child’s birthday, I would sift through old pictures while my heart melted, realizing how much they had grown over the past year.
We actively care for our kids while they are young, teaching them about life and how to navigate the world, only to have them grow up and become completely independent human beings capable of living their lives with minimal guidance from us. We work ourselves “out of a job” by the time they are young adults.
As a parent educator, every fall I hear from parents of teens and young adults how much anxiety they feel as their children start living more independently – whether that’s moving out to start their careers, attending college or technical school or taking a gap year to travel or volunteer. When my first three children left home, I felt a deep sense of emptiness. I began to ask, “now what?” and “how do I spend my time?” I feel fortunate to still have one teenager at home but am keenly aware that it is only temporary until I am left with no children living under my roof. Feelings of loss and great sadness that some parents have when children leave home are commonly called “empty nest syndrome.” Although it is not a clinical condition, it can be very difficult. The feelings of loneliness and grief can even be debilitating.
It is a balance of separation and connection. We want to be (and stay) connected to our teens and young adults while enjoying the parts of our lives that are separate from them. Finding this balance can be difficult because the scale has been tipped in favor of connectedness for such a long time. If you are struggling with “empty nest syndrome,” here are some practical tips that might help:
Connect (or reconnect) with friends.
One Montgomery County mom of three said that she never had time to hang out with friends because her children’s needs always came first. “I could never do that before because there were always after-school activities or evening obligations,” she said. Now she spends time getting coffee with friends and meeting her husband at different restaurants after a long workday.
Or, if you are not in a relationship, use the time to begin one. Raising children can squash your romantic life. Take time to focus on rekindling your relationship or reach out to meet new people who you might want to date. It could be the perfect time to set up that online dating profile if you’re single.
Identify your (other) roles.
If your self-identity has been that of being a parent for the past 20 years, it might be more difficult to think about the other roles you do – or could – have. You’ve probably had many different roles in your life – daughter or son, teammate, student, spouse, employee – and you can refocus on those roles and/or create new ones. Having more time may allow you to become a volunteer or community leader. You will always have the role of “parent” even if it takes less time than before, and these additional roles provide another way to identify yourself.
What did you like to do before having kids? Art? Theater? Sports? Crafting? Woodworking? Now is the time to reconnect with the things you used to love doing. Or find new ones! “Pickleball has become so popular around my area that I’m regularly playing four or five days a week,” said one Northern Virgina mom, beaming ear to ear. Another mom I know is taking gourmet cooking classes now that she has the time.
Focus on a new challenge.
Have you always wanted to run a marathon, learn a new language or travel to an exotic location? With the extra time and energy, you can tackle that new adventure. Because some parents are in a delicate emotional state when they become empty nesters, experts suggest waiting a year before making any major, life-altering decision like selling your house or quitting your job.
Seek professional help.
The average time it takes to adjust to children leaving home is several months. But don’t feel bad if it takes longer. Every parent is different, and every child-parent relationship is unique. If your feelings are severe and persist for several months, it’s time to reach out for professional guidance. A good counselor can offer support to help navigate this difficult transition.
Stay connected to your kids.
Just because you are separated geographically does not mean you can’t stay connected, especially with today’s technology. The mode of communication (phone calls, texts, FaceTime) and frequency (daily, weekly, monthly) needs to be comfortable for both you and your child. Just because you want to talk daily doesn’t mean they feel the same way. Tread lightly at first and ask what feels reasonable to them.
No matter what strategies you use to adjust to this new stage of your life, your feelings of loss and sadness won’t go away automatically. Your children moving out on their own is most likely a big change. You are entering a new phase of your life and need time to grieve the loss of the old one. Be kind to yourself. Once you adjust, the days won’t feel so long and the years will begin to feel short again.
What to do if your adult child is having trouble adjusting
- Your child can apply most of the same strategies.
- Find ways to connect more often so you can provide comfort and support.
- Encourage your child to stick it out for a reasonable amount of time.
- Be a positive role model by sharing how you cope with feelings of sadness.
- Let your child make their own decisions (relinquish control).
- Ask your child to seek professional help.