Time to molt

When children leave home, that empty-nest grief can be overcome by rediscovering yourself and your spouse.

nest 88 (photo credit: )
nest 88
(photo credit: )
For Paula Morton, the time she spent preparing her youngest child, Cedric, to move away from home and into college dormitories wasn't a time to relish, but rather the "countdown to my meltdown." A mother of two, Morton still vividly recalls that day 12 years ago when she and her husband deposited their only son in his new campus abode. He was only 90 minutes from home, but for Morton, the tears began on the ride home. "He was gone, just gone," remembers Morton, who said she quietly mourned her son's relocation for nearly a year. "His room was empty, his things were gone; I wasn't going to see him every day or talk to him every day. And the day we took him to school, when we returned home, I went to the basement and had my meltdown." Did she cry? "Oh, a lot," affirmed Morton, her eyes widening at the thought. "I tried to be cool about it and not let him know I was sad… but when he called us that night, I was waiting by the phone. … I just missed him." And did she visit his old room in an attempt to feel closer to him? "Yes," she nodded. "I did do that some, but finally stopped." Morton's reaction isn't so extraordinary. Not unlike other parents whose children leave home for the first time, she was experiencing the pangs that are now commonly referred to as empty-nest syndrome. Although the emotional condition is rarely mentioned in medical textbooks, it's an apt description for the sadness and loss that many parents - especially mothers and single parents - endure when their children no longer share the same home. However, Dr. Janet Belsky, an associate professor of psychology at Middle Tennessee State University and lifespan-development expert, said that although most articles and reports concerning empty-nest syndrome focus on the grief parents experience, there is indeed a flipside to the situation. Many married couples, in fact, "are typically much happier after children leave the nest," observed Belsky, who's authored a number of articles and books on adult-life experiences and aging. "When an adult child leaves home to go to college or live on his or her own, it can be like a second honeymoon for those parents," she explained, "because it's almost like [the couple] can focus on each other again, not just the children. "For me, I can tell you that I didn't like my husband very much, but he got a lot nicer when my son left," Belsky revealed, laughing. "When [children] are no longer in the house, you have this whole new relationship again as a couple. And since my own son has been gone, two things have happened: I get along better with my husband, and I also get along better with my son… so empty nest syndrome can be a positive, but nobody tells you this." Morton, too, agrees that with no children in the home, a couple can again nurture their relationship, with fewer child-related distractions. "Our relationship did improve; I can say that," she confirmed, referring to the time following her son's departure. "We seemed to resolve communication issues, so yes, our marital relationship improved." "Most people are thrilled at the empty nest," Belsky insisted. "Marriages typically get much happier after children leave the nest. Things at home are calmer." As for single parents, Belsky said, "I think single parents have more trouble because of the exclusive attachment to the child; with couples it is much, much easier. "What tends to happen, though, I think, is that you feel terrible for a while. If your child has been fairly independent, it's not that different, but like any other life transitions, it's a change." Moreover, when sons and daughters go away to college, a parent's feelings may not be the same in each instance. For example, Belsky said, "Girls seem to be more interested in leaving, and are often more independent, but boys, I think, are actually less independent." Morton's empty-next experiences mirror Belsky's observations in this regard too, she conceded, because "it was different" when daughter Courtney left home. "My daughter went away to college about four years before my son did, but she was only an hour away," Morton said. "I didn't worry any less about her than I did about my son, but I just felt like she was better prepared, like she knew more about what to expect." In the years leading up to the time children begin college, they tend to move out gradually and are not home as much, Belsky explained, and this gradual transition can help parents ease into the idea of having a childfree home again. "There is a mourning [when a child leaves home], and it varies from person to person, but what you are really mourning is your baby," Belsky said. "For many people, caring for a child has been their whole life, but you have to keep in mind that you haven't really lost them … and you will still be very tied in." In her own experience, for instance, Belsky said she and her son, now in his 20s, communicate better now than ever before. "I think kids in their 20s still need their parents a lot," she said. "It's a tough time to go out into the world. … Just because your children move out, you don't stop being a parent. I mean, you still are one, but this is a time when we can talk to our children about feelings better. …You can talk like adults." Still, empty nest is quite real, Belsky remarked, and parents need to take an active part in overcoming the sense of helplessness and loss that it sometimes brings. "It's a transition to prepare for and there is a sense of loss, but that will vary," she noted. "When your child's about 16, it's time to start rethinking things. Like retirement, parents can start asking, 'How can I best prepare for this next phase in my life?' "If you feel like you are where you want to be in life and don't see any place left to go, it can be very difficult, especially for those who have been stay-at-home mothers. But now is the time to try something else - expand your identity and reconnect with the world around you." For Morton, reconnecting with a past hobby was key in helping ease the pangs of empty nest. "After my son went away to school, I joined a singing group that I'd been a member of before for about 10 years, the Sweet Adelines. It's a women's chorus, an a capella group, that has different branches in various cities, so I joined them again, and that helped." The onset of empty nest, in reality, is a time that should be viewed as a growth period, stressed Belsky, not a time to mourn. "Think about what things gave you pleasure that you haven't been able to do, or think of something new that you've wanted to do," she suggested. "Look at this period in life as a time to grow into a more interesting person." After all, she said, smiling, "It's important for parents to remember that their children aren't gone, they just have a different address." Middle Tennessee State University