Adjusting to life at home without your children can be difficult, but now’s the time to embrace new opportunities
One moment you’re smiling and clapping as your baby takes their first wobbly steps, and the next you’re helping them pack up their belongings as they move out and face the world as adults. Watching your kids leave home can be disorientating and many parents suffer from empty nest syndrome – a feeling of sadness that is caused by the change in situation – when this happens.
“Children have been the focus of their parents’ lives since they were born,” explains Celia Dodd, author of The Empty Nest (celiadodd.co.uk). “When children leave home it affects life on every level, not just daily routines. It’s often a rollercoaster of different emotions: sadness, regret, pride, lack of purpose, loss of identity, and anxiety. It’s a huge adjustment and can be a real crisis in parents’ lives. But as I’ve discovered myself, a crisis is painful, but it’s also a catalyst for positive change.
“I’ve got three children, and I missed each one desperately when they went,” she adds. “It was a very difficult few years, even though I was busy with my work and had a happy social life. These days, however, I really love the freedom of my empty nest and all the new opportunities it’s brought – opportunities I could never have foreseen when they first left.”
Your time to grow
It’s these kinds of opportunities which can make the adjustment to your new life easier. “Mothers will often have made multiple sacrifices during the child-rearing years, but there will now be more freedom and additional time and energy to pursue new personal, social and professional goals,” says Dr Madeleine Tebbet, clinical psychologist and expert at The Luna Hive (thelunahive.com).
“Maybe you have a list of projects you have been putting off for years: decorating the spare room; organising the attic, or is there an educational class in which you could be interested? Using the extra time available to engage in these positive outlets may well transform a potentially turbulent transition into a positive one.”
Celia agrees, saying that this extra time gives you space for personal growth. “The first step is to shift your focus away from your children and on to you,” she says. “This may take time. In the early days it’s natural to be preoccupied by how they’re doing and when you’ll next see or speak to them. While that can be comforting, what’s more helpful in the long-term is to start thinking of things that you really enjoy and find fulfilling.”
And, don’t forget the other benefits that come from watching your children grow up, too. As they move out and make their own way in life, you may find that your relationship with them improves and matures. “For me, this was the unexpected silver lining of the empty nest: that the relationship can develop into a more equal – and often richer – one, between two adults,” Celia says. “Parents can nurture this new relationship by making a conscious effort to see their son or daughter in a new, adult light and to stop treating them as children when they come home.”
Adjusting to a new normal
While there are undoubtedly positives to be taken from watching your children leave home, the tricky part is often the transition itself. Follow our five-step plan to make this shift as painless as possible…
Plan: “Use the time leading up to the transition to think about how your role as a parent may change and think about what you would like to do with your extra time and energy,” Madeleine advises. You may want to consider taking up a new hobby, engaging in some volunteering work or enrolling in an educational course. Even simply writing a list of short-term and long-term plans that you have to look forward to can help.
Acknowledge your feelings: “Many mothers find the transition from parent of a child, to parent of an adult a difficult one and there may well be feelings of loss and grief for the life you previously had. Allow yourself space to mourn if you need to, and don’t try to deny these feelings,” Madeleine says.
Create new routines: Even as teenagers who are barely home, your children can form a real part of your day. You may be used to always making them a cup of tea in the morning or vying for time in the bathroom in the evening, and when they’re gone, this can leave a big hole. “Identify the time of day or week you miss your child most – their key in the door at 4pm, for example, or Sunday mornings – and create a new routine to take its place,” Celia suggests.
Stay in touch: It can be difficult to establish new routines with your children in terms of keeping in touch, as your expectations may not align. The key is to talk openly about it. “Make sure you communicate with your child about staying in touch and how you will do this,” Madeleine says. “Would it help to have a planned telephone call at the same time each week? Is there somewhere you would like to meet for dinner/breakfast once a month?”
Reflect on your achievements: This is an important one, says Celia. “Remember to acknowledge your achievement in introducing an independent adult to the world,” she says. “Although I felt a bit redundant and uncertain about the future when my children left home, I also felt really proud and relieved that they seemed happy and independent. After all, launching children into the world is the whole point of being a parent.”