10 February 2015

The empty nest - more than just a time to redecorate

Montezuma Castle, Arizona -
once a thriving settlement, now a very empty place
It was early 2010, and I was possibly the dampest spot in Arizona. My husband had taken 6 weeks long service leave, I'd persuaded my work to give me unpaid leave, and we'd flown to the United States to fulfill one of his long-held dreams - to tour the southern American states.

It should have been a great adventure, and eventually it became that. But for the first couple of weeks I would burst into tears at the least thing, or even for no reason at all. What was going on?

Jet lag didn't help - whichever way you travel it's a long, long way between Perth and the USA. I've never dealt well with lack of sleep. But I was emotionally charged before we even set off. A few weeks earlier our eldest daughter left to go overseas for several months. She had been coming and going from home for quite a while, but this was a much bigger move.

Not long after she left, and only a few days before we flew, I waved goodbye to our other daughter as she took the train to Adelaide, knowing that she would be studying there for a couple of years. It all seemed to happen so quickly.

Whenever I felt tired of travelling and wished I could be tucked up at home, I'd suddenly remember that there was no-one at home. And then the tears would flow. As a couple we'd travelled on our own several times before, once the girls were old enough to be left to look after themselves. But they were always there, at home, or at least nearby. Suddenly I had to deal with the idea that 'home' was a different place now than it had been for the past 20 years or so.

Sonoran cactus, Tucson
I'd never imagined that I would suffer from 'empty nest syndrome'. I'd prided myself on bringing up my girls to be independent and self-reliant from an early age. At pre-school my eldest daughter, when asked to complete the statement "I love my Mum because…" on a Mother's Day card wrote "When I'm sick she tells me what to do." Callous mother! Neither of them had caused me any anxiety about their ability to cope with the real world.

I'd looked forward to the day when each of them would step out into the world on their own, and I could never understand mothers who bemoaned the fact that their 'babies' were growing up. Wasn't that what babies were supposed to do, with our help? I had enjoyed watching our daughters' gifts and personalities develop, and loved relating to them as adults rather than being responsible for them as children.

Road sign, San Diego
Before they came along we'd had 6 years living as a couple on our own, so it wasn't a strange situation to be in. Yet here I was, in tears at the thought of returning to an empty house. I felt anchorless, as if somehow the place I'd left had disappeared off the map. Fortunately, as I say, I soon recovered and enjoyed the rest of our trip. In the end, it turned out to be a wonderful way of reconnecting with each other as a couple.

The phrase "Empty nest syndrome" was first used in the 1970's to describe the common experience of parents, particularly mothers, when the last child leaves home. It's said to be more likely to occur if a parent draws a lot of their identity from their parenting role, if they generally find it difficult to deal with change, if they had a difficult time leaving home themselves, or if they lack emotional support. I could tick the box on some of those, though I'd found leaving home myself a rewarding experience. Not having time to adjust to our new situation before we went on a major holiday probably didn't help.

Empty nest syndrome isn't an illness or a medical condition, but a stage of life, and in most cases (like mine) it resolves quickly. But for some people it can be the precursor to depression, especially if the grief is not recognised or acknowledged.

Perhaps it will become less common now that most stay-at-home mothers or fathers return to work when their children reach school age. Technology such as skype makes separation easier (for parents, if not for children). Parents have to cope instead with the boomerang generation leaving and returning home several times before they settle.

But it's worth thinking ahead if you have children who will be leaving home for the first time soon, especially if it's the last child who is leaving. How will you deal with the emotional upheaval? It's easy to say jokingly that you'll be clapping your hands, and to start making plans for renovating their room as your office. And it is a time for celebration of a job well done. But it's also a time of readjustment, so be prepared for an unexpected sense of grief, and make sure you have some emotionally supportive people around you.

About Me

My photo

I'm a writer, medical graduate, wife, mother, and follower of Christ, with an interest in a wide range of topics and ideas. I live in Western Australia.