You’ve unpacked the last box. Hung the final sweater. Said your 100th goodbye. You’ve hopped in the car, and watched the scores of college kids and their parents do the same. Your heart is heavy. Your hands are tired. You look over at your spouse and think, “Oh no, now what?” For some couples, becoming “empty nesters” is exciting, for others it can bring on bouts of depression.
While empty nest syndrome is not a clinical diagnosis, it is a time of adjustment for couples. Wikipedia defines empty nest syndrome as “a feeling of grief and loneliness parents may feel when their children leave home for the first time, such as to live on their own or to attend a college or university.” When the last child leaves the house, it is not just a transition for the child; it is also a time of readjustment for the parents. You may find yourself feeling depressed or sad, unsure about what to do with your time. You no longer need to wear your mom and dad hat everyday and for many people, that can be scary. Especially if your identity has been wrapped up in your children’s lives for all these years.
As a psychotherapist and a mother of twins, my husband and I experienced a double empty nest whammy five years ago when both of our kids left for college within weeks of each other. For their entire senior year of high school, I cried at every “last whatever” (last first day of school, last school dance, last sporting event, last backyard gathering of the kids’ friends, etc.) and the thought of their empty bedrooms and basketball-less weekends filled me with dread. After dropping off our daughter and then weeks later watching our son walk back to his dorm without us, I thought, “How am I going to get through this?” My husband, on the other hand, drove away with a smile as big as Wisconsin’s Lake Mendota.
While we each approached this new chapter differently, my husband and I conscientiously worked on our “new normal.” And just like many couples, we experienced times of sadness and loneliness. We also embraced the quiet, the orderliness, and the time we had for ourselves, and each other.
If you are wondering how to handle your empty nest, following are a few tips to guide you along.
- Switch from parent mode to couple mode. Have you spent the last 18 years scheduling, driving, and tending to your children’s every need and desire? Now is the time to expand that energy and time into your partner. Focus on what makes you and your spouse happy, and make time for each other. Maybe you want to work out, go for long walks, or take lessons together, or take in a movie or dinner mid week; spend time doing activities you couldn’t do before when your kids were home.
- Talk more. Sadness, loneliness and grief, are natural emotions. Talk to your spouse about how you feel. Sharing vulnerability and emotions is a way to connect and reestablish bonds with each other. This is an adjustment period for both of you. It is not a time to sweep emotions under the rug. Ask for support if you need it, and in return, being empathetic with your spouse will go along way. Professional counseling is also an option when your feelings of sadness and grief linger.
- Take time for you. While spending time together with your spouse is important, so is self-care. What are your interests? Do you want to go back to work, take a class, spend time with friends, and learn a new hobby? Get reacquainted with yourself or maybe reinvent yourself – you may be surprised how fulfilling and fun this next chapter can be.
- Less is more. Technology has made staying in touch with our kids easier than ever. With that said, it doesn’t mean you should be calling, texting, tweeting, posting, emailing and checking your kids social media accounts constantly. Part of the process of having kids leave the nest is giving your kids space and learning to step back. Establish rules and boundaries that work for you and them. Remember, no news is usually good news, and even though we all love knowing what our kids are doing at every moment, it is not healthy for anyone.
- Daydream believing. One of the best ways to take stock of your marriage and this newfound freedom is to plan like you did when you were newlyweds. What do you want the next phase to look like? By discussing this and setting goals together you can create a sense of excitement like you did when you were first married.
As Dr. Seuss, said, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” In other words, if you find yourself feeling sad and scared, take pride in knowing you gave your child wings and roots, and they are off discovering new ground. Now is the time to rediscover why you fell in love with each other in the first place. The key to long lasting love is ever lasting like. Reconnecting with your spouse on many levels will no doubt get you through this challenging and exciting new phase. Marriage is like a roller coaster. There are twists and turns, and ups and downs, and often we take the ride with our eyes closed and hope for the best. So hop on, strap yourself in, and hold on tight. Empty nesters, you may be in for the thrill of your life.