Categories: Community Blog

Finding a new name for the empty nest

What do you do with an empty nest?

That’s it.

The last of our kids has finally finished university and has started her own “grown up life” as she calls it. While none of our daughters have been living at home for a few years now, this last milestone is really the signal that yes we are pretty much free as the birds.

And you know what? I’m good with that. When our last daughter moved out to go to university, I was a little like the parents in a recent television commercial who feigned sadness as their son moves out for college, and all the while they really they can’t wait to redecorate his room.

Our daughter’s bedroom is now my meditation room. Based on conversations I have with people in midlife, I’m not sure that is what usually happens.

Many women in particular experience "empty nest syndrome" – a loss of role identity that makes them ask, "Now what?"

Calling this important midlife transition the empty nest syndrome does it a disservice. The word empty naturally conjures up feelings of loss, sadness or abandonment. No wonder people feel that way if that is how this time in their lives is described.

I’m not saying that there aren’t powerful emotions attached to seeing one’s children grow up and leave home. I’m suggesting that like in any transition, change is inevitable but suffering is optional.

Your experience as a mother, or father, in midlife depends entirely on what you choose to focus on. If you focus on the empty part of the empty nest, you will likely feel empty. What are you focusing on?

I’ve always believed it was silly to say that as parents we are raising children. I think our role is to raise adults – healthy, happy, confident, independent adults who eventually go and pursue their own hopes and dreams. If we do our jobs well as parents, then our children should want to leave home to begin their own independent lives.

Of course I have nostalgic feelings for those cutie pie little girls who are now young women. But seeing them ready to take on life makes my heart sing.

By the time your kids are in their late teens, the heavy lifting of parenting is done. You’ve taught them most of what they have to learn from you. Now is the time to sit back a bit and let them spread their wings.

Focus on the celebration of a job well done. For two decades you have devoted an incredible amount of time to being a parent. You have likely sacrificed some of your own wants and needs in service of your children. It probably felt like there just wasn’t enough time in the day to get everything done, let alone pay attention to your personal wish list. With your kids grown, there is more time available for you.

Focus on your hopes and dreams. Focus on self care. Focus on forgotten or yet to be discovered interests. Focus on your relationship with your spouse.

It’s easy to think of our kids growing up as the end of an era. That often causes us to look back at the past rather than forward to the future. We lament that our children no longer need us, and we might question how we can now make a contribution. Remember your role as parent never really stops; it just shifts. Your kids still need you, just in a different way.

I’m pretty sure the phone calls that start, “Mom how do you do…” are likely never going to stop. If my mother were still alive, I’d still be calling her for her advice even if sometimes I didn’t end up taking it.

Now is the time to focus on new beginnings – yours and your children’s.

Midlife is all about re-inventing oneself. It affords you the luxury of being able to take the time for self-reflection. You are not the same person you were when you first had children. You’ve learned and grown. You’ve shifted your thinking on some things. You get to redefine your role as parent now that you have adult children.

Focus on discovering who you are now. Midlife doesn’t have to be a crisis, unless you want it to be. There’s nothing empty about it. It’s full of opportunities if you choose to focus on them.

So what do you do with an empty nest? Start calling it something else.

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