By Guy Winch, Ph.D
Every August, high school graduates leave for college and start a new and exciting chapter in their lives. But they are not the only ones facing a new beginning. Parents left with an empty nest must also start a new chapter in their lives. Managing this transition correctly will determine if it is one characterized by excitement for them too, or one filled with a prevailing feeling of loss.
Our identities are defined by the various roles we play in life. The larger and more meaningful a role is, the more significant aspect of our identity it becomes. Arguably, there are few, if any roles more important, more time-consuming, or more meaningful than parenting. Therefore, being a parent is a large part of our identities. It defines who we are and what we do. So when our last child leaves home, it isn’t just the nest that can feel empty. Indeed, parents often struggle with a profound sense of loss, not just because they miss their child, but because their very identities have been significantly impacted.
Why We Need to Redefine Ourselves
Empty nest is not the only loss that involves challenges to our sense of identity. Losing our health, getting divorced, and even retiring are all examples of losses that create psychological injuries of a similar nature, as they each involve losing a hugely important role in our lives. In order to ‘treat’ these wounds we must first come to terms with how our identities were impacted by the loss and the various ways our lives were changed by them.
Psychologically speaking, we cannot just adjust to such losses by getting used to them. Rather, it is always essential to replace meaningful aspects of our lives in one way or the other when we lose them, even if the loss itself is normativesuch as when dealing with an empty nest. We therefore need to identify possible new roles and interests to explore and we must consider existing ones we might be able to expand.
Strategies for Overcoming Empty Nest Syndrome
Ideally, we should not wait until our child leaves home to begin our own adjustment process, as the sooner we take action to address our upcoming needs, the better off we will be emotionally. Indeed, Dr. Susan Newman, advocates we start such preparation when our children are still young, as doing so gradually over the years will make the departure easier both for them and for us.
However, for those who have not planned ahead and need to ‘cram’, here are some basic strategies to consider:
1. Make a list of the roles you have in life. Include roles that require a regular investment of time and energy such as Wife or Husband, Sister or Brother, Daughter or Son, Friend, Neighbor (if you belong to any building, neighborhood, or community associations or boards), Sports Team Member, Pet Owner, your Profession, Business Owner or Employee, and any other roles you can think of.
2. Go through your list and indicate which of those roles you might be able to expand. For example, if you have a spouse or partner, you could reinvest in the relationship, find new mutual interests, and rekindle your romance. If you do not have a partner, you can consider reentering the dating world. You could also refocus on your career or become more active in any community involvements you have.
3. Create a list of new interests you would like to explore. Look for meet-ups in your area (meetup.com) as a place to connect with others who share similar interest, or start a meet-up yourself. If you have trouble brainstorming, don’t worry. Years of parenting can make one feel a little ‘rusty’ as far as extracurricular activities go. Try thinking back to interests you had before you had children and consider exploring those to start.
4. It is best to get involved before your child leaves home but if it is too late to do so, try to get things on your calendar as soon as you can. Be aware that it’s natural to experience feelings of loss so don’t expect to feel ‘excited’ per se at first. However, getting involved in new activities and interests will help accelerate your emotional adjustment and it will also mitigate some of the emptiness you feel, both within your home and within yourself.