In the animal kingdom, species that build nests often do so only to shelter the eggs that contain their offspring until they hatch. Frogs and sea turtles are done with their parental duties after laying eggs in a secluded nest, while wasps and alligators keep their young in the nest until they're mature enough to care for themselves. For alligators, though, that time period may only be about a year. It's clear that as humans, we invest far more time and effort into caring for children while they're under our roof.
Though humans spend more time with their young than nest-building birds, there comes a time when avian metaphors begin to apply very aptly to children. We often speak of young adults learning to spread their wings and fly; they go off to college or the military, get married or accept a job cross-country. Whatever the child's flight path, parents are left with an empty place in the home, or as it has been dubbed in the vernacular, the empty nest.
Though the departure of each child brings about unique and significant changes, it isn't until that last child is no longer living at home that you have an official empty nest. The occasion of the last child leaving home could bring a sigh of relief to the dad that no longer has to worry about Junior borrowing the family car on Saturday night and returning it with an empty gas tank the next day. Mom no longer has to clean up and stock the fridge after her daughter's friends are over. Sure, the house may be quiet, but that means more time for new hobbies, date nights and travels. It can be quite exhilarating for a parent to watch a child entering a new phase of life, particularly when the parent is proud of the job done preparing the child for this moment.
Other parents, however, have a harder time dealing with the departure of a child. When the loss has a negative impact on a parent's daily life, it's sometimes referred to as empty nest syndrome. On the next page, we'll take a closer look at this condition.
Empty Nest Syndrome Symptoms
Any major life change requires some adjustment, and it may take a few days to get used to not hearing the sound of your child's footsteps in the hallway or that empty place at the dinner table. It's perfectly normal to miss a child, particularly if the relationship was close.
But for some parents, the pain of separation becomes consuming, to the point that even months later, they suffer from extreme grief and depression. Parents may find themselves spending hours in their children's rooms instead of engaging in normal, everyday activities. Their sleeping and eating patterns may change. It may seem that there's nothing left to do in life, and they've served their purpose.
These symptoms of empty nest syndrome are most commonly associated with mothers, though both parents may experience them. One reason that women are more associated with empty nest syndrome is that it often coincides with menopause, which wreaks its own special havoc on a woman's emotional state. If a woman has largely shaped her personal identity as that of mother, then an end to the reproductive years accompanied by a child leaving home can be especially traumatic.
For this reason, empty nest syndrome seems to strike stay-at-home mothers more than mothers who work full-time or part-time. Because stay-at-home mothers lack an immediate outlet for their time, they have more time to fixate on their loss. Women may also be more likely to suffer from empty nest syndrome if they have very traditional views of family and place a high value on a traditional maternal role.
It's also common to experience empty nest syndrome if the child's departure is not at an anticipated time, if it's either earlier or later. In other words, if a gifted teen heads off to college a year or two early, or if a child decided to stay at home while working to raise money for that first apartment, then there's a greater chance that the parents will suffer empty nest syndrome [source: Raup, Myers].
The fact that some women suffer so terribly when a child leaves may cause grief for those parents that were doing just fine. Should they feel guilty for not enduring such depression? As it turns out, those parents may be in the majority, and some researchers claim the idea of empty nest syndrome is a myth. We'll investigate on the next page.
Is Empty Nest Syndrome a Myth?
Empty nest syndrome is not formally recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), the authoritative word in mental health issues. Still, while empty nest syndrome may not be an official condition, there's no shortage of anecdotes about how awful the empty nest can be. Marriages fall apart as parents have nothing to do but wait for sporadic phone calls and visits.
Many researchers are coming to believe that these stereotypes are more the exception than the rule. A 2008 study published in Psychological Science found that rather than heading for divorce court, most couples experienced a higher rate of marital satisfaction because they had more time together [source: Parker-Pope]. But the study revealed that it wasn't just quantity that counted, it was quality, likely because women were less taxed with housework or consumed with a child's demanding schedule [source: Association for Psychological Science]. Parents have also generally found that relationships with children become stronger once they've flown the nest, as parents begin to serve less of a disciplinarian role and become more like advice-giving peers.
Additionally, many studies on empty nest syndrome have been conducted on parents already seeking help or therapy for the condition [source: Forman; Raup, Myers]. In a survey of approximately 1,100 mothers, only 10 percent of those who had experienced an empty nest reported feeling acute loneliness or having trouble adjusting to the change. In the same survey, more than 25 percent of mothers said that their favorite stage of motherhood was, in fact, the one in which their children no longer lived at home [source: Forman].
Because that reason may imply negative feelings about motherhood, we may not hear much about these mothers because they don't want to admit to such feelings. Still, even the happiest and healthiest of moms may have trouble choking back tears after helping to decorate a child's first apartment. Many universities now offer lectures and programs to help parents adjust to the change, and some parents form support groups. Such a group also provides a good way to get out of the house and mingle a little. If your child was in fact the center of your world, then it's time to turn the focus back to yourself. If the depression and grief lasts longer than a few months, it may be time to seek counseling.
For more on the empty nest and other midlife health concerns, see the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Angel, Sherry. "When Your Young Birds Have All Flown. Letting go of that last youngster can be a jarring experience, but there are ways to weather it." Los Angeles Times. Sept. 12, 1990.
- Association for Psychological Science. "Is Empty Nest Best? Changes in Marital Satisfaction in Late Middle Age." ScienceDaily. Dec. 12, 2008. (Feb. 5, 2009)http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2008/12/081202133236.htm
- Belkin, Lisa. "When Children Leave." New York Times. Sept. 18, 2008. (Feb. 5, 2009)http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/18/fashion/18Work.html?scp=4&sq=empty+nest+syndrome&st=nyt
- Conan, Neal. "Experiences with Empty Nest Syndrome." NPR Talk of the Nation." Dec. 5, 2001.
- Cushman, Fiery, rev. "Empty Nest Syndrome." Psychology Today. April 15, 2005. (Feb. 5, 2009)http://www.psychologytoday.com/conditions/emptynest.html
- Demere, Tom. "Nests and Nest-building Animals." Field Notes; San Diego Natural History Museum. Spring 2002. (Feb. 5, 2009)http://www.sdnhm.org/research/herpetology/NestBuilding.pdf
- Forman, Gail. "Rethinking the Empty Nest Syndrome." Washington Post. Sept. 6, 1988.
- Hartocollis, Anemona. "Early Pangs of Empty Nest Syndrome When the Children Leave Home for College." New York Times. Sept. 4, 2005. (Feb. 5, 2009)http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/04/nyregion/04blues.html?scp=3&sq=empty+nest+syndrome&st=nyt
- Levine, Bettijane. "Empty nest? Now keep it like that." Los Angeles Times. June 29, 2006. (Feb. 5, 2009)http://articles.latimes.com/2006/jun/29/home/hm-boomerang29
- Lyon, Lindsay. "Is Empty-Nest Syndrome Nothing but an Empty Myth?" U.S. News and World Report. March 5, 2008. (Feb. 5, 2009)http://health.usnews.com/articles/health/living-well-usn/2008/03/05/is-empty-nest-syndrome-nothing-but-an-empty-myth.html
- Nakao, Annie. "They can (and do) go home again. Empty Nest syndrome? Parents of 'boomerang' children should be so lucky." San Francisco Chronicale. May 30, 2004.
- Parker-Pope, Tara. "Your Nest is Empty? Enjoy Each Other." New York Times. Jan. 20, 2009. (Feb. 5, 2009)http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/20/health/20well.html?scp=1&sq=empty+nest+syndrome&st=nyt
- Raup, Jana L. and Jane E. Myers. The Empty Nest Syndrome: Myth or Reality? Journal of Counseling and Development. November/December 1989.
- Rosen, Daniel. "The Empty Nest Syndrome." RelayHealth.
- Span, Paula. "When the kids move out, the parents move on. Or at least they try." Washington Post. Aug. 27, 2000.
- University of Missouri-Columbia. "Empty Nest Syndrome May Not Be Bad After All, Study Finds." ScienceDaily. Feb. 24, 2008. (Feb. 5, 2009)http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2008/02/080221133313.htm
- Yara, Susan. "Father's Empty Nest." Forbes. Aug. 23, 2006. (Feb. 5, 2009)http://www.forbes.com/2006/08/22/empty-nest-men_cx_sy_0823dads.html