Empty-nest syndrome: The best ways to deal with the identity shift
It’s quite normal to have mixed feelings about waving goodbye to the children
It’s quite normal to have mixed feelings about waving goodbye to the children you’ve loved and nurtured all these years. Many parents – especially women – describe feelings of depression, sadness and even grief when the last of their children leaves home.
In many cases, this can be exacerbated by the fact that today’s young people take longer to leave, as they save up for their own homes or leave and come back for a while. Almost half (49 per cent) of parents over the age of 50 have had children who returned after leaving home.
Empty-nest syndrome (ENS) is a period of transition – and when you throw the menopause and caring for elderly parents into the mix, it can feel like a grim one. It means facing up to the fact that this phase of your life is over and the next phase – of old age and retirement – is beginning. No wonder people feel down.
Typically, it’s a stronger experience for women, because for 20 or more years motherhood has meant being defined in a particular role. You may wonder what your role is now it’s not “mum” all day. It’s a huge identity shift.
“All of sudden, the onus is on you to decide how you’re going to define yourself and how you’re going to structure your day,” says health and confidence expert Rhona Clews (rhonaclews.co.uk).
“As women, we’re encouraged to live our lives vicariously through our children and relationships, so then, when the kids are gone, we don’t entirely know who we are any more.”
Don’t be afraid to try new things and enjoy your newly-found freedom
How to cope
When you are going through this transition period, it’s vital to get support from friends who have been through it or who are also facing it.
“Talking with them about it and acknowledging your sense of loss and emptiness is essential,” says Rhona. Give yourself permission to flop for a couple of weeks to get all the feelings out of your system. “But don’t be surprised if you feel a sense of celebration,” she adds.
“You might want two weeks of eating what you want, sleeping when you want, not doing the dishes, not being a parent, even to yourself, and that’s fine, too.”
And don’t panic or read too much into it if your partner reacts in a totally different way. “You are not going to come apart at the seam,” she adds. “You’re different people and your partner is dealing with his sense of loss in his own way.”
Empty-nest syndrome (ENS) is a period of transition
Once the dust has settled, put a loose structure into your week. “If your week has always revolved around your kids, think what you have neglected. Get stuck into a project, such as having a big clear out, signing up to some short courses, joining groups – projects that have been put on hold while you’ve been waiting for this moment of having greater capacity,” she advises.
And this includes people, such as old friends and extended family with whom you’ve always meant to reconnect.
While you may be feeling bleak now, you’ll find it won’t last for too long as you adjust. Research has found that empty-nesters are less depressed and report higher levels of marriage satisfaction because fewer interruptions mean less stress and better quality time together.
Reintroduce date nights and make a shared bucket list of the dreams you’d love to pursue. Do you want to buy a boat, see the world, start a new business, redecorate the house or just have the odd indulgent weekend away?
“Come up with a new vision for your life,” says Rhona. “When you have kids, you put off your own pleasure all the time, so initially it’s going to feel weird doing what you please. But lovely after a while.”
My daughter’s bedroom is now my home office
Susan Moore, 52, is a virtual assistant and mum of two from Essex
“By the autumn, both my children will have moved out. My daughter, Robyn, 20, is already at university and has just moved into a shared house, while my son, Christopher, 19, goes to uni this month.
And although it’s taking some adjustment and a few discreet tears in the shower, overall I feel quite calm about it. My kids have shown me they’re quite able to deal with making their own way in life. And this is actually what I want for them – to go off and have adventures and be around like-minded people with ambition who can broaden their horizons.
It’s not easy to watch them leave, but I’m determined to be positive about it.
Of course I’ve had wobbles, but I haven’t cried in front of my kids because I don’t want them to worry about me. As when my marriage ended four years ago, I’m focusing on the positives of my changing circumstances. The overriding thing is that I want them to be proud of me and that means not asking them when they’re coming home. That doesn’t mean
I don’t miss them, but you have to get up and get out there rather than worrying and dwelling on their absence. I want them to have a big life – and that won’t happen if they stay home in our little village.
At my daughter’s suggestion, I turned her bedroom into a new home office as soon as she’d moved out. My old one was in the basement so it was dark and gloomy. But my new one is light and airy and I’ve painted it grey and cream and added office lighting and blinds. It looks out over the garden and I love being in it. While I was away a few weeks ago, my daughter put pictures up in my new office of all my favourite things – skiing and David Bowie, mainly.
She realised it would help me. Young people can be very self-centred, but this was amazing. And she’s happy because she’s now got the basement as a den and bedroom for when she comes on home visits.
Having an empty nest has given me the chance to do all that ‘I’ll do it one day’ stuff. Like getting out to see live music, art galleries and exhibitions – stuff I never had the time for when I was bringing the children up. And being a virtual assistant means it doesn’t matter where I work, so my plan is to work my way across Europe, starting in Amsterdam.
I did a lot of travelling in my twenties and I’m keen to get back out there. I’ve got a friend in Amsterdam and one in Lisbon, so I’ve got plenty of people to visit while I’m on my travels. All I need is an internet connection to meet work commitments. I’m going to fill my life with travel, networking events and pursuing other business ventures. It’s an exciting time.”
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