As of a month ago, my husband and I became empty-nesters and, apparently, I was supposed to feel somewhat mournful about it.
Most people, when they learned of our empty nest status, asked me if I cried when my last child left home. Nope. I actually felt kind of joyful.
Don’t get me wrong, I love all of my kids and I could happily spend any amount of time with them and their partners. But when our house became empty of children, I truly did not feel one iota of what is referred to as empty nest syndrome, which, apparently, for some parents, can cause some degree of upset.
Although empty nest syndrome is not an actual illness, there is a period of grieving that some parents can go through after their kids leave home that can develop into more serious issues, such as depression, loneliness, bouts of alcoholism and loss of purpose, which I think would have more likely occurred while I was raising the kids, as they suck the life out of you.
But, for some, it comes afterwards. And since I personally could not even squeeze out a couple of tears and the skip in my step was maybe a little excessive after the moving truck pulled away, I wondered if I was kidding myself about the close relationship that I feel I have with my kids.
However, after reading an article about empty nesters in Psychology Today, I have concluded that my response was pretty normal.
According to the article, the last child leaving the nest can be a mix of relief and grief and it is normal to feel strongly on either side. If the departure of the child falls on the heels of a challenging relationship, then the departure may be a harder transition and some grief may be felt for a child leaving under those circumstances.
Grief can also occur with the sudden absence of normal daily routines that the child was part of that were enjoyable, such as chatting over meals, or watching favourite TV shows together.
Stress also increases over the typical things parents worried about when the kids lived at home, such as whether they were safe when out with friends – even though we truly had no clue what they were really up to. The myth of being in control still made us feel better – and no longer being able to see them walk through the door can be hard on some parents.
There are many other reasons a parent may feel grief and it is important to recognize that it is normal.
However, if the grief or worry impacts daily life, it’s not a joking matter and no one should feel ashamed in asking for help.
Raising kids takes a lot out of parents and consumes a lot time, so when the kids move on, there is bound to be a reaction of some sort to the void. And if it is loneliness, depression, or turning to alcohol for comfort, reaching out for help is just one more way of setting a good example for your kids.
Interestingly, none of our friends asked my husband if he felt teary eyed when our daughter moved out.
Yet, although women tend to fall prey to symptoms of empty nest syndrome at a greater rate than men, the latter can also suffer from similar symptoms and deserve to be supported just as much as women.
My husband, on the other hand, was already calculating the savings in the food, hydro and heating bills.
As parents, we strive to raise our kids to be independent, good people who are capable of making decisions, getting a job and having positive relationships, so when they move out, we can feel confident they will be fine.
I feel blessed that I had typical children who were capable of moving out and starting their own life, independent of their parents. Many parents who do not have a such a child may envy the quandary of an empty nester, be it grief or relief, as it would mean their child was entering the normal world of adulthood and I try to stay mindful of those families.
However, like parenting, facing the empty nest phase is a personal journey and it is important to address any grief that may crop up, so that the stage of life that follows can be positive and rewarding for all involved. After all, it is an opportunity to enrich your marriage, take up hobbies that fell by the wayside, re-kindle friendships, renovate the kids’ rooms, so they can’t come back, and, generally, just enjoy the new relationships that can form with your adult children.
One final note of interest from the article was a warning to married couples to avoid the tendency for some – my money is on the women – to fill the parenting void by focussing on your partner.
As if that didn’t happen on Day 1.
Cheryl Ashlie is a former Maple Ridge school trustee, city councillor, constituency assistant and citizen of the year, and currently president of ARMS.