Ever since my youngest started college, I’ve gotten used to being asked, “Enjoying the empty nest?” In my opinion, that’s one of life’s most annoying questions. Feelings of loneliness, sadness, and grief are normal for “Empty Nest Syndrome” (according to the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), but we’re also supposed to be loving our new “free bird” status at the same time.
To me, the wording reveals much of the problem. “Empty” suggests a barren, uninhabited void. A nest is a safe space to hatch and shelter the young — shelf life implied. And “free bird” is something losers shout at concerts of bands who aren't Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Still, when friends asked me the dreaded question during my daughter’s Parents Weekend, the hot tears that sprung to my eyes surprised me. I realized I actually have an answer: “yes ….”
Yes, less laundry, more “me” time, and no more carpooling or short-order cooking is awesome …
… and yes, I often feel lonely and sad.
… and yes, use of the term “empty nest” needs to fly away, for good.
Feathers in your post-child-rearing cap
The funny thing about the whole empty nest thing is that research has basically debunked the stereotype that family life ends once kids go off to college. Karen Fingerman, human development and family sciences professor at UT, Austin, has found that compared to the mid-20th century, factors including less financial stability, marrying later, technology, and accessible transportation keeps today’s home fires burning strong:
The culture is shifting toward increased contact and increased interdependency between parents and their young adult children.
Fingerman reports seeing the opposite of empty nest syndrome, with stronger relationships between parents and children developing as the daily hassles of living together subsides. She also sees an overall increase in wellbeing for parents with more time to foster other important relationships (like with a spouse), start new projects, and focus on career growth, among other worthy pursuits.
Rebranding empty nest
So that begs the question, why does the idea that this is an empty vs. fertile time of life persist? I think in part it’s because a core part of our identity — parenting young, fully dependent children — cuts off. It is a loss and an adjustment. And for many of us, it entails some soul searching to re-calibrate our meaning and purpose.
My take on this transitional time is it’s not at all about staring into a dark void, but instead opening up to exploring new space. If you think about it, it’s just one more of those “ages and stages” transitions. The only difference is that this time, we’re the ones learning to walk on our own.
How Parents Can Stay Close to Grown-Up Children (New York Times)