The feelings of sadness, grief or loneliness, or questioning their “purpose” in life are what has become known as “empty nest syndrome” that some parents or care-givers experience. This can occur when children or dependents grow up and/or leave home to lead independent lives of their own. These feelings are mostly attributed to women, but men are just as likely to be affected.
It is commonly believed that those parents who have given up their jobs or careers or who have elected to work part-time in order to devote more to time to childcare, are more susceptible to feelings of loss and inadequacy when their child leaves home, but it can be just as devastating for working parents and those who do not fit the more traditional housewife role.
It isn’t merely a feeling of sadness that we’re talking about, that accompanies your child striking out on their own. It can be a gut-wrenching, physical ache that tears at your heart in the most unexpected of situations. Sufferers speak of heart-broken, bruised, hollow feelings when they either contemplate, or are experiencing the “loss” of a child who is graduating or transitioning to the next phase of their becoming fully matured adults. As mentioned before. These feelings can take hold even if the parent has a full life, a career, hobbies, friend and healthy relationships.
When you become a parent, being a parent becomes your primary focus and it can become your primary role. The terrifying, exhilarating, heart-warming, traumatic and entirely new experiences of becoming a new parent – whether this is your first child or not – lead to the equally emotionally exhausting but more physically demanding period when your child becomes more mobile. The first wrench of separation when your child begins full-time education leads to the logistical nightmares of your child’s play-dates, activities and birthday parties etc. This can also include the competitiveness and rivalries that can go with being parents in some demographic circles. Then there’s the emotionally challenging time when your child becomes a teenager. You live through all the moody, confusing, conflicting emotions that they go through. It can be difficult to understand teenagers, partly because sometimes they just don’t understand themselves at this stage, and partly because, although you can remember being a teenager yourself, you were a teenager at a different time in history and were faced with very different challenges to those your own child is facing. All the difficulties, heartache and stress that comes with raising a child, can pale into insignificance when it becomes time for your child to leave home.
This stage of your child’s life can be just as painful for you if you and your child have not had the most harmonious of relationships and this can lead to its own set of issues. You might be facing feelings of regret, residual anger, frustration or guilt. You may even have feelings of relief and then guilt about feeling this way.
Being a parent is a full-time job throughout all your child’s developmental stages, but without the benefits of free evenings, weekends off, TOIL, renumeration, performance reviews, supervision and holidays. So, when your children leave home, either to go to university, to travel independently, or to set up their own home, it can feel the same as if you’ve been made redundant from a long-held position. It doesn’t matter if you found the experience of parenthood fulfilling and exhilarating or challenging and fraught with conflict, the feeling of loss can be equally painful.
For some women who have reached menopause around the same time that their children are flying the nest, this can be an even more emotionally-charged time in their lives. The feeling of being redundant as a parent and the fear of becoming redundant as a woman that some women experience, can be even more devastating to live through if they coincide. For many parents, they know intellectually that their son or daughter is ready to strike out on their own; that they as parents have given their child all the necessary tools they can, in order to transition as best possible. At the same time, there can also be a fear that their child isn’t yet equipped to deal with the big wide world and still need parental protection. In some cases, they feel compelled to take this opportunity to do everything possible for them, whether this means arranging tickets, transport and accommodation if their child is going travelling; packing, purchasing necessities and sourcing housing if their child is going off to university; purchasing household goods, furnishings and groceries etc. if their child is setting up their own home. Although you may have seen less and less of your teenager or young adult while they forge their own friendships and social circle, the new experience of not being needed and a necessary part of their daily lives can be extremely painful.
It can be cold comfort if you’re told that this is just a phase, and that you will come through it; that all you have to do is to revisit hobbies you may have relinquished in the past or take up new hobbies. These are things you will probably already have considered, and to you it can feel as though your life has lost any meaning.
Empty nest syndrome is not a clinical diagnosis but rather describes a particular stage in a parent’s life. It can help to speak to others who are going through the same experiences, or to a professional who will not make light of your concerns or give you advice about how best to manage the accompanying feelings of sadness, grief, depression, pain or loss, but will listen to your experiences with a sympathetic, non-judgemental ear.