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.