Coping With an Empty Nest
An unfamiliar sadness engulfed Erica Carr of New York as she and her husband were dropping off their son, Nate, at college in Boston.
"It kind of hit me when we were walking out of the room and as we drove away from the city," she says. "It felt like such a severe loss."
Ellen Gamberg, homemaker and mother of 23-year-old Lea, was happy when her only child announced that she was getting married. For close to a year, mother and daughter handled most of the wedding details together, picking out flowers and bridesmaid dresses.
But when the big day arrived, Gamberg felt sad and lonely. "I guess it finally hit me that she would be leaving home for good to start a life with [her fiancé]," she says. "Of course I was happy for her but I was really blue for me. She lived at home when she went to college and I guess I realized that the longest she'd ever been away from home before was two weeks of summer camp when she was in grade school."
According to family psychologist Dr. Marlon Fleischer, the feelings that Gamberg and Carr experienced are common for parents once their children leave home to live somewhere else. "Parents dedicate so much of their day-to-day existence to their children to try and help them grow to be responsible adults," Dr. Fleischer says. "Once those children leave home for good, it often triggers feelings of loss because what had been their primary job for so long is now over. Their children have become adults."
It is not unusual for parents to become depressed once their last child leaves the nest. "But often, those feelings are temporary and pass relatively quickly, especially if the child is doing well in life, be it college or a new career," Dr. Fleischer says.
Carr's feelings of loss intensified once she arrived home.
"The first month was the hardest," she says. "You're so used to catering to [your child], and then you've suddenly got all this time on your hands." She had to adjust, making smaller meals and missing the swim meets Nate competed in as a high school student. But eventually, she adopted a routine that helped her adapt to life with two people under the roof instead of three. This included giving more attention to her husband, Steve, a benefit she says he loved.
"It is an excellent time for the parents to re-connect as partners," Dr. Fleischer says. "Sometimes the role of parent overruns the role of wife or husband and the relationship can stagnate as a result. Many couples use the time to get to know each other all over again."
One of the biggest adjustments parents have to make is getting accustomed to a slower-paced lifestyle. "Especially if the nest is empty because the child went off to college, Mom and Dad no longer have to keep track of their child's schedule or even get him or her to and from events and school functions anymore," Dr. Fleischer says. "Suddenly, they find they aren't so pressed for time and have more of it at their disposal." He adds that parents who find constructive ways to fill this extra time – with a hobby or a part-time job – tend to have an easier transition.
Although her sadness made her more than a little lethargic for a while, Gamberg says that once she and her husband began to do more things together – including the second honeymoon they had postponed for years – life in an empty nest became a lot more comfortable.
"It was nice to have her all to myself," says Gamberg's husband, Ben. "There were no soccer games to go to, no wedding dress fittings, no PTO meetings. I felt like we were almost dating again and I looked forward to being with her, especially in the early evening."
Ben Gamberg says they also began to do more seemingly mundane things together, such as cooking and washing their cars. They even took a non-credit beginning mechanics course together at a local college – something they have wanted to do for years.
"We never would have found time to be able to do that before, especially not together," Ben Gamberg says.
The Extra Room
While it may be tempting to keep your child's room exactly the way that he left it, Dr. Fleischer says it might not be the best thing to do.
"It could prolong the sadness many parents feel if every time they walk down the hall they see their son's football on the shelf or their daughter's stuffed animals lining the bed," he says. "It's almost like the parent can keep pretending that the child is just down the hall doing something or away for a while visiting friends." He says that for children who have moved away for good, it might help if parents convert the child's room to a guest room or sewing room when they're ready.
A couple of years after Nate left for school, Carr turned Nate's room into the family computer room, although most of Nate's things are still in it. The Gambergs completely redecorated Lea's room, turning it into a guest room decorated in Gamberg's favorite colors. "We started it the day after her third anniversary," Gamberg says. "I got tired of just keeping her door closed and only going in to dust the furniture. It was actually very therapeutic."
Now that her son is getting closer to embarking on his career goals, Carr says she still finds herself thinking back to the days when he was living at home.
"I used to think about his graduation and get all teary-eyed," Carr says. "Now I kind of put it aside and think about how much he's grown as a person since then."