Suddenly, there are empty spaces everywhere. Some spaces you’d hardly even noticed before. And that awful silence. The sound of absence all around. Not even an echo. Everything feels a little bit less.
Your son or daughter has moved out.
Where once there was life and bustle and something needed from you (straight away, right now), almost in a flash, there’s nothing. Ghosts perhaps. Empty shelves. Bare walls.
The experience of ‘empty nest syndrome’ will vary in detail between every parent, but its essence is universal: a major sense of loss; undertones of bereavement; the shock of anticipated change finally happening; and that visceral sense that life will never be the same. The moments can’t be reclaimed, though your aching heart doesn’t seem to get that message.
The experience of the empty nest is happening to many parents later and later in their lives. As the cost of living rises, especially housing, and as the traditional career bases disintegrate, so more and more children are choosing to stay at home longer. These days many mums and dads don’t encounter the empty nest until well into their fifties or sixties or beyond.
Some parents may treat their child moving out with an apparent light heart: “what a relief!” they joke. But usually this is a thin veil, not much more than a performance to avoid the questioning gaze (from themselves as well as others). Don’t be fooled.
The reality is that the time when your child leaves home is one of life’s major threshold moments. Birth, marriage, bereavement….the empty nest has the potential to be of equal challenge to those other milestones.
So it deserves our serious attention.
Empty nest syndrome can be a tough threshold to cross; for some, the toughest. This is can be especially true if you’ve been a single parent: after all, who is there to fill your everyday with you now. Who will encourage and empathise and sometimes make unmeetable demands? Who will make new choices with you? Who will you make them for? Who will be with you through all that new, vacant time?
And, even more frighteningly, who is there to give value to your own life? With your child now apparently independent, what need does s/he have for you? What need does anyone? What’s your life for now….?
For some, the ‘freedom’ of no longer being a 24/7 parent can feel like a trap. It can feel like a huge, life-consuming void. The raison d’etre has vanished. All that’s left is ‘what now?’
From this place it can be hard to truly appreciate that the negatives aren’t the whole story. Hard to see any good news in it all. Hard to accept the other truth: the empty nest is a place of limitless possibility. As the parent ‘left behind’ your world is now full of choices, in a way that it perhaps hasn’t been for many years. And of course your child still needs you, just not in the way s/he did before. You still have a crucial role in his or her life.
At the heart of the experience of children leaving home is the fact that your life is more your own than it’s been since you first brought children into the world. You can fill the spaces, fill the time, with anything of your choosing.
Not only that, but you have the wisdom of years — the self-knowledge that makes you ideally placed to take advantage of the freedom more than you’ve ever done in the past. There is a real liberation here, if you can allow yourself to experience it.
But how? How do you deal with the awful emptiness of the nest?
As with most crises, the starting point lies in confronting the emotions that come with the change.
Here’s a tactic that seems to work for many of my clients as it has done for me (and can be applied to all emotional pain, including grief and a broken heart):
Be open to the emotion, however tough it may feel. Allow the confusion, fear, sorrow, anger, whatever to surface inside you. Try not to avoid it or minimise it. Don’t seek distractions, but also don’t wallow. Don’t force anything. Try not to react to the feeling, just be aware of it. Sit with it. Sit quietly — literally — and pay attention to the feelings in yourself. Notice the pain but also notice it’s not killing you. Try to think of your emotions as your allies, there to show you something. Learn to learn from what you feel. This is the key to growing from all of life’s obstacles, including the empty nest.
Children will leave home. It’s natural. What else should they do? Your challenge as a parent (yes, another one) is to learn to experience the empty nest not as a source of angst or fear or loss; but as a new place of your own, full of space for possibilities. There are fewer impediments to your movements now. Your feet are on firmer ground at last.
The empty nest is in fact a perfect base from which to fly.
And this time, after all these years, you get a wider choice of destination.