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Empty Nest? Not All Parents Are Sad About It

Empty Nesters

By LEANNE ITALIE   10/10/11 02:43 PM ET   AP

NEW YORK -- Pamela Reilly and her husband have big plans that don't include moping when their three teens finally fly the coop over the next two years.

She and husband Terry, with a fourth child grown and gone, hope to downsize and leave Indianapolis for more rural, sunny climes. They're dreaming about touring Costa Rica and Baja Mexico on motorcycles. She's considering a return to school to become a physician's assistant or a nurse practitioner.

"We definitely fall into the category of parents who will be celebrating their children's successes instead of mourning the fact that we have an empty nest," said the 46-year-old Reilly, a doctoral student in naturopathic medicine. "Having an empty nest doesn't mean you have an empty life. At least it shouldn't."

Have the dark days of "empty nest syndrome" brightened among today's parents, or has juggling two careers on tight budgets with over-busy kids left them so stressed out and child-centric that they have no energy or skills left to navigate their lives alone?

What about all those helicopter moms? How will they fare in their empty nests after years of applying Ivy League educations to afterschool spreadsheets filled with soccer, test prep and music classes?

First your kids crawl, then they drive, then they leave. Why isn't that a good thing?

"Not all parents experience empty nest," said psychologist Joseph Cilona, a parenting specialist in Manhattan. But the helicopters, he said, those parents who "tend to be controlling and micro-manage their child's life, are at a much greater risk for negative emotions such as deep feelings of loss and sadness when children leave home."

No twinges of sorrow in Bentonville, Ark, for mom of five Pamela Haven and her husband, Jeff. She has a recurring thought about life after the last of the brood – 17-year-old twin boys – graduate high school in June: "Thank God they weren't triplets!"

Up next? "We're booked on a cruise right after school ends, just the two of us. We're purchasing a travel trailer, and we can't wait to strip down the upstairs and repaint, carpet and make two guest rooms."

Also looking forward to life after children is Jeanette Simpson, an interior designer in Lakewood Ranch, Fla. She has six kids (no boomerangers in the bunch) and the last is a high school senior.

"After 27 years of dealing with school schedules, and 33 years of kids at home, I'll be an empty nester in less than a year," she said. "With the last one, I feel almost guilty about not being overly saddened. I have a feeling of `job well done.'"

What's she looking forward to the most? Traveling with her hubby without worry about school breaks and, "Time for myself, something that's been rare since the first one came along."

Carl Hindy, a marriage counselor in Nashua, N.H., knows empty nests don't always start off smoothly. Those who seek guidance are led in part by working couples who have had little time to indulge their marriages.

"Couples come to counseling feeling they've grown so far apart and don't know what to do now that the proverbial product has shipped," he said.

With three ranging from 14 to 18, marketer Charity Hisle-Zierten near Atlanta can't wait to ship some product and start enjoying some me time.

"I cannot imagine that I will have empty nest syndrome," she said. "I'm truly looking forward to experiencing the rest of my life. I started very young, pregnant as a senior in high school, and I have never experienced life without the responsibility of three human beings weighing me down."

Don't get her wrong. "I love my children dearly, but I have raised them to be independent for a reason. I want them to grow up and be happy, contributing members of society."

Jolyn Brand, an education consultant in suburban Houston, has seen her share of weepy parents dropping kids off at college. What they don't consider, she said, is the guilt their tears whip up in their children during that crucial time when they're just taking flight.

"I'm always baffled by the parents who are enormously saddened," said the mother of four, ranging from 8 to 17. Her oldest is college-bound next fall. "Sure, we all love our children and we'll miss them, but we've been preparing them for 18 years to be independent and leave the nest."

Brand recalled clucks of sadness from fellow moms on Facebook when she once described oversleeping on a school day. Her two youngest, 7 and 12 at the time, got themselves up using their own clocks, made their own breakfasts and left for the school bus without prompting.

"I posted a comment that my children were becoming independent and needing me less," she said. "Other moms commented that this would make them sad and it would `get worse' as they got older. I thought it was a great thing!"

Writer Dede Cummings' nest in Brattleboro, Vt., is already empty. Her celebration took some time.

The last of her three kids is 19 and in his second year of college at Lewis & Clark, across the country in Portland, Ore. The marital transition and stress of paying tuition made things rocky at first, so she and her husband, an assistant professor, went into marriage therapy, started a garden together and got a puppy.

"We both work busy jobs, but we play tennis or ride bikes together," she said. They're also planning a 10-day trip to Japan with their youngest along.

Cummings felt she and her husband, Steve, had made all the right moves. They raised self-reliant kids prepared when the time came to bust out, yet anger and frustration creeped into her marriage after they were gone.

"The marriage therapy was specifically to deal with `empty nest' issues," she said. "We were not focused as a couple without any kids at home. So much of our energy revolved around them. Our son was a big jock, co-captain of both soccer and lacrosse senior year, all-state in lacrosse, and traveling to sports games took up a lot of time, and some of our social life was there, too."

Cummings described "a kind of sadness around the loss of our kids" that remained undefined once they were gone.

"We didn't realize it and took out our frustrations on each other," she said. "But we seem to have weathered the storm."

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Filed by Leah Finnegan  |