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Empty Nest Adjustments - Heartache or Opportunity

Sept. 5, 2014


My wife and I are about to join a group that has always seemed far off in the future. There is a large, collective sigh about to be heard among parents sending their youngest children away to college. We knew this disruptive day would come. We are ending our wonderful, 32-year run of life with children at home. As college freshmen settle into dorm rooms and college life, parents feel sad, nervous, anxious, afraid, excited and protective simultaneously.

What is empty nest syndrome?

What are the symptoms? Wikipedia says that “there is a form of depression – a sense of having no purpose in life. Parents ask themselves if they have prepared their child well enough to face life independently.” Oprah Winfrey offers her own description. She says: “Confronting an empty nest requires enormous reorganization, only it’s not files or an office you are trying to rearrange, but the very architecture of your life, your identity and your connection with someone you love”.

Whoever coined the term “empty nest syndrome” did not think it through, however. This is one reason my wife does not like hearing the term. Like many buzz phrases, it is inaccurate. The nest is not empty. Children depart, but parents remain home affixed to care giving habits that they must adjust. Certainly, emptiness factors into the situation in the form of grief. But, it is a significant time, and anything but empty. Evolving, but not empty.

Daily routines have been etched into our lives. Being mothers or fathers is what we are. No matter what other job we have, “parent” has been at the top of our job description since we brought our first baby home. This is now as big an adjustment as bringing that first child home. We now have a constant melancholic ache at the sense that life as we had come to know it was on the turn again. We must accept that a wonderful period in our life is over. These are the seasons of parenthood.

We are going to miss our son. Pretty soon he will have his own life. A life we won’t be part of 24/7.

We want him to leave the nest. We are proud of him. We are excited for him. We need to trust our work and let him fly away.

We will miss the excitement and fascination of all those firsts. Our children always brought constant newness to our lives. When they leave, part of our youth goes with them. Our main purpose has been to raise our children and get them on their own. We will now fill that nest with an exciting and different sense of purpose and newness.

For parents, it is now just a matter of figuring out how to go on with just the two of you. As my Irish mother said, “You need someone to tell your stuff too”. It is time to recapture what first brought you together and rejuvenate that. Now you have time to make your own schedules, to make your own rest of your lives what you want it to be. It will take some growing into it but you can help each other out. It is the end of a season, but also the beginning of another one.

As Robin Williams said, “You're only given one little spark of madness. You mustn't lose it.” We need to embrace some of the 18 year old in all of us. We need to laugh every day, be spontaneous and do things without hesitation. Make a bucket list. Find new adventures. Talk about maybe – maybe travel or maybe a boat or maybe acting classes – maybe is a liberating word and a hopeful one.

We are in charge of our own happiness. The world of opportunity is at our fingertips. Nothing can be as rewarding as raising children. But other things can be rewarding in completely different ways. Find something to do with as much passion as you have into being a parent. Maria Shriver says that “this is a time of endless possibilities, enrichment, renewal and discovery. The nest need never be empty; it presents new opportunities for fulfillment as it continues to evolve”. Keep your doors open. When one closes, open another.

The following poem “Come to the Edge” by Christopher Logue is for parents and for the child who will leave you soon:

Come to the edge.
We can’t. We’re afraid.
Come to the edge.
We can’t. We will fall!
Come to the edge.
And they came.
And he pushed them.
And they flew.

Terry Rice lives in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin and has 3 sons.

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