Is the empty nest a syndrome?
“What am I going to do with myself after all the kids have left the house?” This was the question that popped into my mind when I waved goodbye to my third child and only daughter as she began her freshman year of college. And then I googled “empty nest syndrome.”
The internet is loaded with information about almost everything, and the empty nest is no exception. In fact, one of the most common myths floating around cyberspace is that there is some sort of syndrome associated with the empty nest. Did you know empty nest syndrome is not an actual psychological diagnosis? It’s just an expression, and I think that the addition of the word syndrome has created some negative expectations for what can be a really great stage in our lives.
Yet, there is no denying that many of us struggle as our children leave the home. My own experiences led me to ask, “If the empty nest is not a syndrome, why is this so hard?” Here’s what I found:
- Midlife and the empty nest is a key developmental stage of life. Like all developmental stages, this one requires us to change our thinking and our habits, and change is always stressful. Think back to when your children entered the terrible twos or when you went through adolescence. Did you experience stress, frustration, and fear? Sure! But we made it through those stages, and we can make it through this one too. Soon, you will be proud of the person you have become on the other side.
- Dormant marital conflict often rises to the surface when the children leave. Why? Because now we have more time to spend together, and those nagging issues that we put off because the kids kept us so busy are now demanding to be addressed. Sounds terrible, but actually the empty nest is a gift for our marriages. We will need a strong marital relationship when we enter old age and now we finally have the time to build one.
- Preexisting personal issues can also bubble up for the same reason that marital issues do—in the empty nest we have time and space to deal with them. If we are willing to do the hard work on those perennial problems, we will find that the extra time the empty nest provides is a true gift to our future selves.
- The relationship between us and our children changes significantly as they start to forge their own identities and build their lives independently of us. It’s hard to let go of that sweet little boy or charming little girl and watch as they forge their way into adulthood: we can no longer give them specific direction like we did when they were little. But we can build new relationships based on mutual respect and shared experiences.
- Our culture sends the message that it’s all downhill from here. Where did we get the idea that the empty nest years are dull and lonely? It starts with the media and their unrealistic emphasis on the importance of looking and acting like a 25-year-old woman well into our 50s. If we can’t reach that unreasonable goal, we are told we will be invisible to society, or worse, potentially labeled as problematic and entitled. Churches and many social support organizations send the same message when they offer discipleship classes and small groups for adults entering early marriage and parenting stages but not for those in middle age and the empty nest stage. The response we need to give here is to reject these subtle messages—they aren’t rooted in fact—and to find our purpose in midlife and our tribe in these empty nest years. We still have a lot to give and a lot to enjoy!
Did you recognize the common theme that these alternative explanations for “empty nest syndrome” share? We are not helpless! Each challenge can be addressed with intentionality and commitment to continued personal growth. There’s no requirement for time to move backwards and the kids to return to live at home, which means we can work through these issues and develop an empty nest life we love to live. That’s what I’m writing about over on BacktoYouandMe.com and that’s what I’m working on with my husband, Jack. If you want to join the conversation, we would love to get to know you and hear your story!
Table Talk: Does “empty nest” scare you or excite you? Who gives you advice for the stage of life you are in?
Want some midlife adventure ideas? Read this post here.