Synopsis: Parents who have spent 18 years or more raising children often feel lost when the last child leaves home for college or their own place. A psychotherapist discusses common reactions and strategies for renewing purpose living in the empty nest.
Host: Nancy Benson. Guest: Wendy Aronsson, psychotherapist and author, Refeathering the Empty Nest: Life After the Children Leave
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16-18 The Empty Nest
Nancy Benson: The lives of parents with kids growing up often revolve around shuttling them to soccer practice, making cookies for bake sales, cooking for a crowd, and doing countless piles of laundry. Parents’s friends are often the parents of their children’s friends. Life is all about the kids, their activities, and school. So when the youngest child grows up and moves out or heads for college… what then? Conventional wisdom is that parents are ready to turn cartwheels. But surveys show this reaction is fairly common:
Wendy Aronsson: A feeling of loss, a feeling of no direction, insecurity, instability, all of those things.
Benson: That’s psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker Wendy Aronsson, author of Refeathering the Empty Nest: Life After the Children Leave.
Aronsson: I can’t tell you how many cocktail parties I’ve been to when everybody said, “Ah, I just dread being an empty nester.” So, it’s on people’s minds, it’s in the air. So recognizing that feeling — it’s really important that dread, if you will, or that angst about it. This has been their life description; this has been what they have been doing for eighteen-plus years, if this is the youngest and/or only child. So all of a sudden they have a new job description; all of a sudden they have to find out what else is important to them. And they have to take stock and reevaluate.
Benson: About 25 million Americans are “empty nesters” whose kids have grown up and moved out. It’s such a dramatic change when the last child leaves that Aronsson simply calls it “the shift.”
Aronsson: It is what I refer to as “the shift” because I think it impacts every aspect of the family or the couples or the person’s life. So by that it’s the relationship to the child, their relationship to their spouse, friends, their career. I often work with the analogy of the patchwork pillow. If they are feeling that there are patches that are missing, hopefully this is the time that they can find different patches for that patchwork pillow so that they feel more a sense of comfort.
Benson: Some parents have been thinking about that and planning what they’ll do with their newfound freedom for years. But Aronsson says sometimes even that isn’t enough to deal with the emotional impact once it finally occurs.
Aronsson: Some parents will prepare everything and they leave nothing for chance. By the time the child leaves it hits them like a ton of bricks. They no longer have any way to prepare or any more to prepare for, so there’s a lot of emptiness that people can experience. On the other hand, there could be a lot of denial that people just can’t believe their youngest is leaving, that this chapter in their life is over and what is going to happen to them, what is their life going to look like? Are they going to be needed from their children or are they going to feel needed with their spouse? What are they going to do with their life?
Benson: And as you might expect, the impact of the last child leaving often hits one parent harder than the other. For example, the stay-at-home mom.
Aronsson: There usually is one parent who takes a little bit, at least a little bit of a larger responsibility for the children. Oftentimes one sees the parent who does have that responsibility experiences this a little more intensely or acutely.
Benson: Aronsson says most parents will even move through the well-known Kubler-Ross stages of grief when their youngest child leaves.
Aronsson: I think they do, but again it’s a matter of degrees. I think some might feel those stages of Kubler-Ross much more intensely. Denial is one of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ first stage that she talks about in loss and that is seen with the children leaving the nest, as oftentimes the parents can’t believe it. An example would be they try to parent the same way they always have rather than allowing for room for the child’s independence. That would be a way of denial.
Benson: The second stage is anger about the child leaving. The third is bargaining.
Aronsson: They might say, “Well, if you go to school locally then you can have a car.” So there are those obvious ways of bargaining to keep the child then connected or the young adult connected to the home.
Benson: After that come depression and finally acceptance. And when that comes, parents may begin to look at an empty nest as a great opportunity rather than as a great loss.
Aronsson: Think about what would be gratifying and what could be an exciting thing for you as the individual. And then there’s the couple. What could be shared interests? It doesn’t mean that they have to be equal in their interest. It’s just useful for it to be shared – taking up a sport, traveling, doing volunteer work. You know, there are so many different things, but again, it’s refueling your life and your situations so that it has meaning beyond just the children.
Benson: While careers and personal activities can be changed when the last child leaves home, it’s likely that a couple’s marriage will be affected most.
Aronsson: The focus used to be on the children. I often conceptualize it as having these children in the front seat of the car, and all of a sudden they are gone and it’s time now for your spouse to come into the front seat. Before that they were in the back seat. And it really requires that you refocus your energies. One of the people I interviewed said the first thing her husband said was, “Gosh, I feeling like I have my wife back.” People do find it shocking that all of a sudden they have to get to know each other again, that they have to find other things to focus on and really listen to one another.
Benson: The newly empty nest can either be an opportunity for growth or for a marriage to fall apart.
Aronsson: It can be an opportunity to say, okay we’ve done the best we can do raising our children and there is not much beyond that that we have. There have been a lot of studies about post children leaving that parents can end up in divorce. The divorce rate increases enormously. It’s an opportunity also to reinvent your marriage and to strengthen your marriage. I urge those people who feel like the marriage is worth reinventing and working on to get in there and really work, because the opportunities and the fruits of those labors are just enormous.
Benson: These days, however, there’s often a complication. Just when parents have gotten used to being empty nesters many recent college grads have been unable to find jobs, so they end up back at mom and dad’s house.
Aronsson: They’re called the boomerang children. So they come back home, so all of a sudden parents have a young adult – a child in their house again. There has to be a lot of good communication going on, rules within the family. These young adults are used to being on their own, coming home whenever they want, doing laundry when they want to, not want to, so things have to be really clear. It’s really a disruption.
Benson: When parents set down clear expectations — and kids do, too — Aronsson says having a boomerang child back home can be a wonderful experience. But parents have to think about it, be proactive, and not just let it happen. In fact, she says that’s the key to making the most of an empty nest. Maybe parents have a goal or a hobby they’ve never pursued. Maybe there’s an activity they once loved but had to drop. Yes, there’s loss when the last child leaves… But Aronsson says more than anything else, it’s an opportunity to re-craft life into what a parent truly wants it to be. You can find out more about Wendy Aronsson’s book Refeathering the Empty Nest through a link on our website…radiohealthjournal.net.
Our production director is Sean Waldron.
I’m Nancy Benson.