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Feathering Your Empty Nest

IMAGE A positive perspective and some advance planning can help parents (and their kids, too) during the transition from a full house to an empty nest.
Robert Lauers remembers feeling an "incredible, gnawing emptiness" when his youngest son left the family nest. "Finding him a place to stay at school and leaving him there; returning, alone, to my hotel; and then getting on the plane to fly home, I wore my sunglasses and cried," he says.
Becoming empty nesters can be a heart-rending transition for parents. There is a natural sense of loss when children leave the family home, a feeling that the best part is over. Feelings of despair, pain, poignancy, longing, and ambivalence are common. The loss of the physical presence of their children is compounded by the loss, to some degree, of their identities as mom and dad. Some parents may fear they have not done enough to prepare their children for independence. Many parents may feel their lives have lost meaning and purpose, and they may mourn the loss of opportunities in their relationships with their children.
That is the downside. Fortunately, there is an upside, too.
Once over that difficult, initial emotional hump, the Lauers found the empty nest to be revitalizing, even liberating. "Empty nesters have the time and energy to do things they couldn't do before," they say. In addition to the happiness they have found in developing their own lives after their children left home, watching their children grow and function as good, law-abiding people has brought the Lauers a lot of joy. "You really can have your cake and eat it too," says Robert Lauer. "We empty nesters no longer have the day-to-day constraints of living with our children, yet we still share our lives with them." An empty nest allows you more time to nurture your marriage and pursue your common and individual interests. You may even have more discretionary income!

Easing the Transition

Preparation and perspective are the keys to easing the transition. Work through the feelings and know that your are not alone. It is a time when you need to figure out what you want to do and keep looking forward.
Try new things. Think of this as an adventure, and do not put limits on yourself. Open yourself to all the fullness and richness of life. If your identity is tied to being a parent, it is particularly important for you to get a running start. Write a list of things you wanted to try or do during your adult life, and find a way to do them. It will help fill in the empty time gaps and teach you to enjoy activities on your own terms.
The first week or so following your child's departure will be the most turbulent time. Make plans to fill the quite stillness that comes after your last child leaves the house. Stay busy. Indulge yourself. Plan quiet time for you and your partner, and be loving, supportive, and understanding with each other.
Do not assume this as a negative experience. The majority of women in an observational study over a 9-year period found that the departure of their last child led to positive changes in mood and overall well being.

Second Honeymoon or Second Thoughts?

Avoid staring at each other or twiddling your thumbs now that the kids are gone. Be aware however, that men and women approach their grief differently. Women tend to plan for the transition more than men, who can be caught off-guard by their feelings. It is important to keep communication lines open and realize that each person deals with the loss differently. Try to avoid friction and work on trying to put your relationship back together.
While the kids are at home, many of us fall into the trap of neglecting relationships. Remember the activities you enjoyed together before the kids? Take advantage of your new found freedom. Without the day-to-day stresses of having children around, you can turn to each other and plan to pursue things together. Take time to reestablish those connections. It may not be easy, so allow for some time to readjust to being alone again.
If you find that time spent with your spouse is not going the way you planned, try taking a vacation or consider marriage counseling. Remember that you both are dealing with a lot of change, so talking it out may help.

As the Day Nears…

Leaving home is as difficult for kids as it is for their parents. They may be feeling confused, excited, anxious, or even fearful as their departure looms. If you are getting the support you need from your partner and friends, you can attend better to your child. Burdening your children with your emotions, needs, and struggles as they prepare to leave home places a lot of guilt and stress on them at a time when they are also very vulnerable. Here are some tips to keep in mind as the day of separation nears:
Let your child know that you love him and will miss him, but that you are excited for him and have confidence in him.
Celebrate what is happening for your child, and try to put a positive spin on the experience. Hide your tears for the ride home.
Let your child know that you have plans to fill your time after he leaves.
Kids are relieved, say the Lauers, to know their parents are going to be okay after they are gone and that they will not spend their days moping around the house because there are no children left to take care of.
Avoid sealing yourself off from your child prematurely, and let them know you are noticing their feelings.
It is important to stay connected without driving them away. If your child begins disengaging as D(eparture) day approaches, do not take it personally or feel jealous or upset. It is just his way of adjusting.
Let your child determine the ritual of separation.
You can settle on a preferred means of contact (phone, email, instant messaging, etc) and the minimum frequency of contact (at least once a week, for example). Parents should be prepared to receive the child on his terms. You have to respect them as adults, even if their decisions are not the ones you would have made for them.

Ignorance Can be Bliss…

No longer knowing where your child is and what she is doing each day can be anxiety-provoking. Try to remember that no news is good news. You were anxious when she was a clumsy toddler, when you left her crying at the school door on her first day of kindergarten, when she drove your car alone for the first time. This is just the next step, so hold your breath and move on. The fuller your life is once your child leaves, the less time you will have to obsess about it.
All is not lost if you really miss your kids. Adult children returning home is a growing trend in our society. Your job is not over once your children have left home. It is just different. "There's no finer friendship than being friends with your grown children," Jeanette Lauer says. "It's a parent's responsibility to nurture that."
Remember that feelings of loss and adjustment are normal. If you notice long-term changes in appetite, sleep habits, lack of enjoyment in activities, or fatigue, you may be experiencing symptoms of depression. If you do, contact your doctor.

RESOURCES

American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy http://www.aamft.org/

American Psychological Association http://www.apa.org/

CANADIAN RESOURCES

Canadian Psychiatric Association http://www.cpa-apc.org/

Canadian Psychological Association http://www.cpa.ca/

References

Clay R. An Empty Nest Can Promote Freedom, Improved Relationships. American Psychological Association website. Available at: http://www.apa.org/monitor/apr03/pluses.aspx. Updated April 2003. Acceessed January 8, 2013.

Dennerstein L, Dudley E, Guthrie J. Empty nest or revolving door? A prospective study of women's quality of life in midlife during the phase of children leaving and re-entering the home. Psychol Med. 2002;32(3):545-550.

Depression. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what. Updated December 17, 2012. Accessed January 8, 2013.

Pagan C. The Empty Nest. Arthritis Today website. Available at: http://www.arthritistoday.org/daily-living/relationships/intimacy-and-marriage/empty-nest.php. Updated January 8, 2013.

Preparing for the Empty Nest. First Things First website. Available at: http://firstthings.org/preparing-for-the-empty-nest. Accessed January 8, 2013.

Webber C, Delvin, D. Empty Nest Syndrome. Net Doctor website. Available at: http://www.netdoctor.co.uk/womenshealth/features/ens.htm. Updated September 30, 2010. Accessed January 8, 2013.

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