The "empty nest." It's a term that conjures up images of despondent midlife parents whose lives are suddenly devoid of the chirping of their beloved brood. Without their kids, mom and pop have no one to talk to but each other. What's worse, they feel that they've outlived their usefulness and sense of purpose.
This negative portrayal of the empty nest was, for many decades, seen as a plight for mothers more than fathers. The conventional wisdom was that without having the kids to cook and clean for, mothers would have nothing to do to fill their long, empty days. Their major life roles behind them, these women would become depressed and despondent, unable to function until their kids would come home to visit, laundry baskets in tow. During these visits, the moms cheerfully wash those dirty clothes, prepare great home-cooked meals, and clean up the trails of towels, bedding, clothes, and food wrappers that the kids strew around with reckless abandon.
If your mind has drifted back to envisioning the "Donna Reed Show," then you've probably already concluded that the image of a despondent empty nester mother is pretty out of date. Surprisingly, though, we still see plenty of popular references to this period of life as being one of anxiety and sadness. There is a strong, ingrained stereotype that pervades the way many people think about middle-aged women. Surely, they must be miserable with their defining social role taken away from them.
Certainly, many women -- and men, for that matter -- who love their kids miss them when they leave the family home for good. However, it doesn't take the majority of them very long to adapt to their new status. We'll set aside the question of what happens when the empty nest becomes full again, as when the grown kids find they can't afford to live on their own. Instead, let's focus on what happens to parents (married or single) when the kids have permanently moved away.
Within a period of weeks, if not days, the newly hatched empty nesters begin to realize that they now have the freedom to do what they want without the censorious eyes of their 20-somethings ready to offer social commentaries on their behavior. The newly liberated parents can run around the house in their underwear (or less), without being interrupted by loud music, TV, or doors slamming when the kids come home in the middle of the night. No one is there to tell them how annoying they are or to ask for extra cash, clean clothes, or rides to work or school. That weight lifted off their shoulders spells freedom, and they revel in it.
Surprisingly, there's little empirical research on how empty nest parents make this transition to their new lives and beyond. In a 2009 study published in the "Journal of Family Issues," Simon Fraser University researchers Barbara Mitchell and Loren Lovegreen interviewed over 300 parents to learn about their experiences related to what they termed the "Empty Nest Syndrome" (ENS) among four cultural groups living in Vancouver, British Columbia. The authors noted that much of the research on the ENS dates back to earlier decades, when women were less likely to maintain continuous employment outside the home than is currently true. Furthermore, much of the earlier research was conducted at a time when children were more clearly launched, as compared to the present, in which children often take longer to leave the parental home and may "boomerang" back when their economic circumstances take a turn for the worse. Furthermore, much of the research on the ENS was conducted on North American parents who regard their children's leaving to be a mark of their success in preparing them for adulthood.
The interviews showed that mothers were slightly more likely than fathers to report ENS, but overall the percentages of despondent parents were very low, ranging from 20 to 25 percent in most of the groups studied. Parents of Indo/East Indian ethnicity, whose culture emphasizes continuing bonds between parents and adult children, had far higher rates of ENS (50 and 64 percent for fathers and mothers) than the Chinese, southern European or British ancestry parents.
In addition to the role of culture, the Vancouver study identified these seven key social psychological factors that seemed to place these midlife parents at risk of experiencing ENS:
1. An identity wrapped up in being a parent (particularly for women).
2. Feeling loss of control over their children's lives (particularly for men).
3. Having few or only children.
4. Lacking a social support network.
5. Feeling that the children's departure was too early or too late, compared to cultural norms.
6. Being younger when the children are launched, especially if the children don't completely leave home (i.e. are "boomerang" children).
7. Worrying about the child's safety and well-being in the world outside the home.
For the most part, however, it's important to remember that the parents in this study were more likely than not to adapt well to the empty nest transition. Many reported that they experienced personal growth, improved relationships with their spouses, greater enjoyment of leisure time, and feelings of mastery in having launched their children into the adult world.
If you feel that you're struggling with the transition of your children leaving home, it's important to address both the cultural and psychological factors that might be influencing your well-being. You can maintain your connections to your children, even though they may be at the other end of the world, by taking advantage of social media. However, if you define your identity in terms of your role as a parent, you might seek other ways of affirming your value in the world. Look for opportunities to develop other qualities within yourself either at work, in your community or in your leisure interests.
Being an empty nest parent can be a rewarding opportunity for growth. Who knows? With luck, your role as a grandparent may soon follow, leading you into yet more enjoyable and rewarding family experiences.