What’s next for the ‘Empty Nesters?’

A juvenile fish eagle picks up a stick in a nest at Lourensford Estate. Picture: Hanneke Fourie-Beneke

Oh yikes… I’m an Empty Nester.

“What am I going to do with myself when you and your brother both go off to varsity next week?” I asked my eldest son recently.

“You can start planning the meals you are going to make for us over the weekend,” he replied dryly. We laughed, but the funny thing is, last week, I actually caught myself ruminating about this very thing.

For 18 years, we, the now “Empty Nesters’” lives were consumed by school functions and extra-murals, music, laughter, birthday parties and ferrying the kids about at all hours, school friends popping in and food shopping and more food shopping. Now the silence is deafening. You don’t quite know what to do with yourself and there are leftovers.

Isn’t it strange how we encourage our children to be more independent, and we pride ourselves on giving them wings and roots, yet when the time comes for them to fly the nest, it is very painful for us to let go? This can lead to a great deal of anguish and sadness, and this may especially be true for moms who have chosen to be stay-at-home moms.

This transition in our lives, from being child-centred parents to having the last one go off to study or to work, leaving you and possibly your partner alone at home, has a name: Empty Nest Syndrome. It entails the closing of a long and (often) thrilling chapter where you felt that you were needed and that your parenting role was central to your identity, because it gave you a sense of purpose and meaning.

Now, however, you may possibly experience a profound sense of loss, emptiness and loneliness and even depression and a questioning of your purpose and identity, because your role as a parent is no longer your main focus.

These feelings may be quite typical for parents whose children have recently left home. Sometimes these feelings are more pronounced if the parent and child had a hostile or detached relationship.

Sometimes other emotions may surface, such as anger and guilt at yourself for not being more present in the child’s life. You may possibly feel a sense of frustration and constant anxiety because you no longer have control over your child and you have no idea what they are getting up to and if they are safe.

Some marriages experience stress because, for years, you both have focused on the children and now with the children gone, you have little to say to each another and there may possibly be more tension in the relationship.

Whatever you feel is okay, trying to deny your pain or suppressing your sadness is not helpful.

Allow yourself to feel whatever uncomfortable emotions surface and face these head on. This can help them to subside faster than pushing them away. If you find yourself crying and experiencing a great deal of emotional distress, seek support from friends and mentors and people who understand what you are going through.

If, because of your sense of loss and grief, you find that your sleeping, eating and quality of life is being negatively impacted, reach out a medical doctor or a trained psychologist for support.

On the other hand, you have possibly been putting your needs and wants on the backburner for ages and perhaps now is the time for more freedom. It might be the ideal opportunity for you to diligently unearth those dusty dreams and revisit those hobbies that you have packed away in the garage and which you never had time to do. Perhaps you may want to fill your cup by keeping busy, by taking on new challenges at work and in your community.

You and your partner can start rituals such as cooking a meal together, going for walks and out for date nights in order to reconnect and rediscover what you love and appreciate about each other.

While we wish to give our children space to live their lives apart from us, we still want connection and here are some suggestions to maintain connection:

Text or arrange a time for a telephone or skype call as often as you both agree is necessary. Keep these light hearted and fun and use these times to build your young adult and to affirm your love and belief in him/her.

Some young adults leave home to get space so it is important to respect their space, privacy and choices. They, in turn, will respect you for your consideration and because they know that you see them as independent adults in their own right and not as satellite outposts of your kingdom.

Continue to include them in family rituals and gatherings and possibly arrange getaways or special weekends or holidays where they can join you and where you can have an opportunity to reconnect.

Make your home a welcoming place for them and their friends.

In the end though, when all is said and done, mom and dad, this is your time to fly. Take a (deep) breath and just do it.

Sharon Steyn is an educational psychologist. She has a part-time private practice and she has the heart for parenting. Go to www.sharonsteyn.co.za for details.