Learning To Love The Empty Nest

By Dawn Williams, Senior News Associate Publisher


My oldest daughter and her husband watched with the utter devotion of new parents as their month-old son was passed from the arms of one adoring family member to the next. Considering the awe in the eyes of my middle child and her spouse, I was certain they would also be boarding the baby train in the near future. When my youngest daughter got her turn to snuggle the sleeping infant, I rejoiced for the new chapter about to begin in her life, too, even as I held at bay the grief that had been haunting me as one of my own chapters neared its end.

After 34 years of raising my progeny, I was about to become an empty nester.

From the moment our children are conceived, our primary goal is to prepare them to leave the nest. I loved the journey. Their joys, successes, their hard-earned wisdom, as well as their heartaches and disappointments, provided opportunities for learning, for growing, for deepening our bond, and for communicating an essential truth. Although my role in their lives would change as they took ownership of themselves, my love and support would always be there.

Child rearing is not a job for the weak. One must find resources previously untapped, strength and fortitude beyond anything life had previously required, unending patience, unmitigated determination. All those peak moments - the boundless joy, the victories, the celebrations, and the day-to-day light and laughter - were made possible by the parental commitment to stay the course, no matter what that commitment demanded of us. I can’t speak for every parent, but for me, I gave willingly. Those three beautiful souls, in my mind, redeemed me, gave me a sacred task that would govern and inform every aspect of my existence for decades. To prepare them to make their own contribution to the world was a privilege.

My youngest daughter left home four days after that happy family gathering. She started her next chapter with joyful anticipation. I started my new chapter in a state of shock. After building most of my adult life around the needs of my daughters, I was at an absolute loss when it came to designing my own future.

The irony of this experience did not elude me. I remember one evening preparing dinner during the most hectic stage of our history. One daughter in high school, one in middle school, and one in preschool, all three were involved in some combination of extra-curricular music and dance study and, in the case of the older contingent, a wide range of social commitments. Encouraging their talents and aspirations was a high priority for me, but facilitating that exploration was time-consuming. As I stood there watching a pot of water that seemed determined not to boil, I entertained happy daydreams about returning to the exploration of my own talents and aspirations someday.

Que pasa, Mama,” asked my toddler. What’s happening? I was raising her to be bilingual despite how new and unpolished my Spanish skills were at the time.

Estoy esperando,” I answered. I am waiting. Someday, I thought with a smile, it will be my turn.

Years flew by, one daughter going off to college, and then another. I think that is when the impending empty nest crisis began, when only one child remained at home, only one child justifying my adherence to the identity I had chosen and in which I had invested all these years. Who would I be when she, too, claimed her life as her own and relinquished me to a much lesser role than I presently played in her life?

That night, under a full moon that cast magical shadows in the darkness, my soul sister Anne and I sat in contemplation. Our shared quirky sense of humor, her wisdom, my long-held dreams, and a touch of tequila-induced inspiration led to the creation of my first bucket list. But there were still years to go before the list would become relevant. From that point on, I invested the time and energy that used to be split among three children into the one who remained at home. There would be time to pursue the bucket list when she launched, and I amused myself with my daydreams while I patiently waiting for that day. It often struck me as meaningful that the Spanish verb meaning “to wait” is esperar, the same word that means “to hope” It seemed significant, but at the time, I couldn’t articulate why.

When the day came for the last nestling to launch, as best I can recall, I went into a state of shock. I coped by staying busy, frantically so, lest the avalanche of emotions pressing against my psyche escape and demand attention that I didn’t have the fortitude to provide. Why wasn’t I jumping up and down in celebration, congratulating myself on a job well done, and preparing to go off on a long-awaited luxury vacation for two? Why was I frantic and grieving? What was wrong with me?

It took some time for me to realize that nothing at all was wrong. We’ve all heard the phrase “empty nest syndrome,” but how many of us are well-versed in its implications? The experience will be different for each of us, since we each host a very unique inner set of directives and beliefs, but this stage of life includes specific stages that must be navigated.

The Emotions

Launching an adult child into the world is cause for celebration. You’ve invested several decades into reaching this goal, and your child has grown into a young adult full of dreams, ambitions, and hopefully some of the values, common sense, and wisdom borne of your experience. It is a victory for you both.

At the same time, you are experiencing a loss. The nature of your relationship with this human you brought into the world is changing; you are relinquishing what remains of the responsibility you held toward your child’s well being into his or her own care. While we’re immersed in raising our children, we don’t think about the loss their successful launch will represent. But I recently recalled reading a significant book, Necessary Losses by Judith Viorst, which explored how our sense of self is shaped not solely by what we learn in life, but equally by the losses we experience. In the chapter on the loss of our role as primary caregiver to our children, she says, “Growing up under our roof, our children, directly and obliquely, will be exposed to our values, our styles, our views. But letting them go eventually means respecting their right to choose the shape of their life. Letting our children go, and letting our dreams for our children go, must be counted among our necessary losses.”

Allowing emotions to be expressed is a necessary component of mental health and adjustment to change. I acknowledged the grief, even when it meant pulling off a busy highway to shed a few tears because I’d just passed the Starbucks where my youngest and I would often escape for some down time, our favorite music providing a backdrop for witty repartee, meaningful connection, and planning the future. Gradually, those memories began to elicit the joy of what we shared as my grief ran its course.

Tip: Whatever you’re feeling, honor it. Experience it. Accept is as a normal step in the transition to the person you are becoming. It is possible to hold multiple, contradictory feelings at the same time, and all must be acknowledged and expressed in order to heal.

The Concern

If we’ve done our job well, we’ve instilled our children with the knowledge and tools they need to be reasonably competent and safe in the world. Of course they’ll make some mistakes along the way; we learned in the same fashion, didn’t we? We survived the struggles, and so will our offspring.

Our role as parents is to love, nurture, and guide our children. That does not change from the moment they’re born; only the degree of nurturing and guidance they require changes. The newly independent young adult needs your encouragement and guidance as they begin to establish their new life. Be willing to offer it when it’s invited, and never fail to convey your trust in their ability to accomplish what they set out to do. You may worry if they have enough money, if they’re eating, if they’re remembering to get their annual eye exam, and any number of other concerns related to the support you provided when they lived at home. It can become an obsession if you let it, one which will steal the joy from your life as well as your child’s, and could damage your relationship as a result.

Tip: There’s only one way to phrase the solution to this ongoing concern: Stop it. Don’t be put off by the bluntness of this advice. Believe me, I’m as resistant as you are. However, our offspring are now adults, with the right and obligation to choose their priorities and live up to their responsibilities to themselves and others. We can offer encouragement, advice, time, effort, or financial support when it is appropriate and invited. That is absolutely, positively, all we can do. Respecting the newly launched nestling will allow them to develop the skills and self-efficacy they need to live successfully. Knowing you’re there if they need you is a given in a healthy, committed family.

The Transition

Some of us are very resistant to change, while others embrace it readily. The transition to empty nester happens on multiple levels. First, your relationship with your adult child is changing from one where you hold some responsibility and the child is dependent to some degree, to one between two adults. Second, your lifestyle is undergoing a radical transition in which the shape of your days looks different, the breadth and depth of your pursuits can grow, and a much larger piece of your time and energy is once again your own. And third, your identity is in transition as you enter this new stage of life. Of all these changes, the process of redefining yourself is perhaps the foundation of this transition.

I found myself recalling over the last few months the young woman I had been before the role of mother was added to my life resume. I was deeply immersed in writing - one aspect of self that remained stable throughout the child-rearing years - and I was both career-oriented and equally committed to exploring my interests outside of professional endeavors. Once children came along, my professional decisions were dictated by what would best support the clan both in terms of financial gain and lifestyle. Even more, my immersion in hobbies changed. I still made time for things I enjoyed, of course, but those pursuits were no longer considered as important as they once were, and were easily abandoned to allow time for me to design and sew Halloween costumes, plan birthday slumber parties, or serve as a Girl Scout leader. Before I was a mother, from my teenage years on, I started no fewer than six bands, simply because I loved to sing and play guitar and enjoyed the energy of doing so with other musicians. Most of my free time was devoted to it, but that ended when my first daughter was on the way. This insight led me to revisit one of my previously beloved hobbies, and to delve into new ones. And who knows? I just might be setting up a mic, whipping out a guitar, and picking up where I left off musically when I was 21.

Tip: It’s natural and healthy that we adapt to our changing environment throughout the lifespan. Focus on the new possibilities that have become available. Be it hobbies, career growth, pursuing a degree that was put on hold, or doing something entirely new, you’ve just been given the gift of reshaping your life in ways that nurture and inspire you.

Creating Your Future

At every stage of life, we are free to choose our direction, and the most limiting obstacles we face along the way are usually our own beliefs. Especially in times of transition, examining and revising the beliefs that have held you back in the past and continue to do so now will open doors you’ve always longed to walk through, and create opportunities you hadn’t dared to imagine. Honor your emotions, grieve your losses, and heal into a brave new world where the waiting is finally over.

The self I’m becoming is an intricate tapestry woven with threads of the young woman I once was, the mature mother enjoying an adult relationship with her self-determined daughters and a joyful, deep bond with her grandson, and the vibrant, self-actualizing individual my entire life has prepared me to become. My daughters are happy, capable, and loving the lives they’re creating for themselves, and I am learning to celebrate the accomplishment of a job well done.

I am no longer waiting, but I am more hopeful than ever. It’s finally my turn, and anything is possible.

Dawn Williams is the associate publisher of Senior News 50 and Better, and is also a certified transformational life coach. Email her at dawn@selfpoweredchange.com, or visit her website at www.SelfPoweredChange.com.