The Empty Nest

Empty nest – a term made popular in the 1950’s, describes the sadness and loss of purpose that a parent may experience when their children leave home. The name itself evokes a sense of loneliness and sadness but can also be so accurately descriptive of the conflicting emotions we may have about this normal life transition stage.

As I prepare to turn 50 and the last of my children prepare to leave home I have never been more struck by the profoundness of this time of life. I see so many women and friends of mine entering this stage and despite us being intelligent enough to know this time would eventually come, we all seem to still be taken by surprise with the intensity of the conflicting emotions that arise. Excited, happy and proud of our newly adult children but also scared, sad and anxious of what lies ahead. Becoming a parent is a life changing experience and many of us try and prepare for it as best we can and for many parents it becomes a life defining role, giving meaning and purpose. So it’s not surprising that when our children leave home we are thrown, once again, into the unknown, one for which we are often ill prepared.

Empty nest syndrome is not a clinical diagnosis but it does have a set of common symptoms associated with it, such as grief, loneliness, anxiety and worry, along with a loss of purpose. Uncertainty is also common. You may begin to question what your purpose is, how to fill your time, and wonder if you’re still needed. It’s important to remember that not everyone will experience these symptoms or even experience them the same way. Some parents may be more susceptible than others such as stay at home parents where the role of a parent plays a fundamental part of their identity and sense of purpose. 

Psychologist Carin Rubenstein, author of “Beyond the Mommy Years: How to Live Happily Ever After . . . After the Kids Leave Home” describes the three stages of empty nest syndrome.  

Grief, the sadness associated with missing your children as well as the mourning over the loss of the parental role. 

Relief, no more hectic schedules, early morning drop offs, conflict and the relaxing of the heavy mental load of daily parenting can feel like a relief for some people.

Joy, the new found freedom to explore new opportunities, focus on self-care or investing in your marriage can have you viewing this new stage with excitement.  

You might wonder, how long will I feel this way? Just like the experience will be different for everyone, so will the length of time, for some it may start even before the children leave, for others a few weeks or a few months. Just like grieving there is no specific timeline or a correct way to do it.  Don’t be too hard on yourself and pressurise yourself to just “get over it”. Some people will handle the adjustment better than others but it is important to recognize when you may need to reach out for help.

It’s not all doom and gloom though, empty nest can also have positives, a time for reconnection, exploring new interests and rediscovering your purpose.  

How to cope?

Care – you’ve got the time to practise the self-care you may have been dreaming of all this time, now’s the time to do it. Go for a massage, exercise, eat well, practise mindfulness and most importantly practice self-compassion, make room for whatever feelings show up and don’t judge yourself or feel guilty if you find yourself feeling sad or even feeling happy! 

Connect – invest in your social life, friendships and your marriage. Plan social activities, find things you can do together that you enjoy.

Communicate – with your newly adult kids, make a plan for how often you will be in touch and what that will look like – facetime, text, calls. This can be a time for you to figure out how to provide support and love – long distance.

Discover – this is a time for you. Go back to the basics – what do you value? Writing down your values and setting some goals for the future can help you to figure out what you want to do and where to start. Try something new. This may look like taking up a hobby, getting a job or starting a career.  

When to seek help?

If symptoms are severe, overwhelming, persistent and they are affecting or impeding daily life it may be time to seek help from a mental health professional who can help you work through your emotions and offer grief support. If you are feeling sad everyday, for most of the day and for more than a few weeks you may need to consider that you may be experiencing depression. Look out for common symptoms of depression such as feeling hopeless and a loss of interest in things you normally enjoy. 

Remember you are not alone, this is a normal stage of life and just like the other stages of life you will get through this one too. 

Anita Bartholomeusz

To meet with a professional psychologist or counsellor, call The Other Clinic at 8809 0659 or email us