By Christina Raccuia

The “empty nest” refers to the physical and psychological change in the family when a child leaves home or goes away to college. For about 18 years, we as parents have invested ourselves in the emotionally consuming process of raising a family—and suddenly one day the children leave home. As the nest empties, a chapter of parenting comes to a close, often accompanied by many ambivalent feelings from both children and parents. The empty space that opens up in parents’ lives can be both exciting and anxiety producing.

Many parents experience deep grief as they prepare to let go of their children and the family, as they have known it. There are multiple losses including the loss of daily life with children, loss of the sense of family that the parents have built, and loss of the active job of parenting (“I’m out of a job.” “I’m no longer needed.”). These losses can often lessen a parent’s self-worth, particularly if that parent’s identity has revolved around child rearing. Grief can be especially deep if it is the first, last, or only child to leave home, if the relationship with the child was especially close, if the child played a critical role in the family, or if there have been other recent losses. This major life passage can coincide with middle age, menopause, and caring for aging parents, as well as issues around finances. It can also bring to light unresolved family, marital, or personal issues that has been put aside while parenting.

AS THE NEST EMPTIES, A CHAPTER OF PARENTING COMES TO A CLOSE. Author Christina Raccuia’s daughter, Sophia, moving into Reed College in Portland, OR in August 2018. Photo by Christina Raccuia.

Often marriages go through major adjustments after children leave home; as time and energy are freed up from parenting and partners are left alone in the house with each other. Marital relationships have often suffered from lack of attention, intimacy, and nurturance throughout the child-raising years. As partners find themselves alone with one another in a house without children to distract them, marriages often come under scrutiny. This can be an important time to become reacquainted with one another and co-create new dreams and projects. It can also be a time when partners find that they have very little left in common; many marriages at this point in time end in divorce.

Parents are challenged to let go of the child they protected and nurtured through childhood. As the young adult is now being launched into the world, parents must assess the job they have done. Parenting is a very humbling and challenging experience, and it is rare for a parent to have no regrets. Parents are faced with the reality that they will not have a second chance and that they have prepared their children as best they can. Now it is time to let go of their children. Often the relationship has suffered from the inevitable conflicts of the teen years, and parents may feel a mixture of relief and regret that their son/daughter is leaving home. Parents also know that the relationship is changing; once that child has left home, the relationship will never be what it had been, even if the young adult returns home for a period of time. The parent-child relationship at this stage is much like a dance in which the parents have to be ready to step back as the child steps forward, without stepping back too quickly, as the child may fall. The dance of supporting children through this transition is a delicate one, needing timing and sensitivity.

It is difficult to predict how the young adult will move through this transition; it can be a rocky time for both parents and children, with the tension straining the parent-child relationship. As they leave home, young adults are struggling with the developmental tasks of searching for identity and independence. They are saying goodbyes, focusing on their futures, and struggling with questions (“Who am I, apart from my family and school?” “What do I believe in?” “What do I want to do with my life?”) And self-doubts (“What if I get homesick?” “What if I chose the wrong college?” “What if I don’t find new friends?”). Many feel ambivalent about leaving home and have fears about the change in the relationship with their parents (“Will they still love me if I don’t make choices they agree with?”). Young adults may feel conflicting pulls between remaining loyal to the family (and its values) and wanting to break free and discover their own beliefs, feelings, talents, and needs. In an attempt to find their own identities and place in the world, over the next few years these young adults will be confronting and reassessing parents’ values, lifestyles, and relationships—with an ever-widening gap between their experiences and the world of their parents.

Children who are leaving home benefit from knowing that parents are dealing constructively with the empty nest and knowing that parents are seeking to find new meaning and possibilities in this new phase of their lives. It is much more difficult for children to leave if parents are unhappy. As parents face the empty nest, they are challenged to re-create their lives and remodel the family system in such a way that it nurtures the newly defined needs of the parents/partners, along with a new relationship with children that embraces, supports, and appreciates them as adults.

Here are some suggestions for parents who are experiencing empty nest:

Acknowledge the importance of this life transition. Your family is changing, as is your relationship with your child. If you can tend to your own feelings of loss, you can support your child in his/her awkward steps toward independence.

Review your relationship with your child—what you regret and appreciate, what you left out of your parenting, what you have given your child, what you have learned about yourself. Be willing to honor this phase of your mothering.

Listen to your child; acknowledge his/her fears and anxieties while keeping the bigger picture in mind.

Explore who you are in the world after your child leaves home. Be open to the emptiness and the possibilities within it. Explore new questions about the direction of your life. Give yourself permission to dream; cultivate interests you may have set aside during your parenting years. Set a goal to initiate at least two new ideas within the first few months after your child leaves for college.

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