Humans are creatures of habit. We prefer stability in our lives. For all our bravado about embracing adventure, we like to have things relatively predictable. That's particularly true of home life, and that's why the thought of an empty nest is potentially troubling for parents. Big changes often bring big upheaval, and subsequently anxiety.
The funny thing is, for years we've been hoping to have a little more time to ourselves -- and to have the house to ourselves. Once the kids leave, we no longer have to worry about dishes mysteriously piling up in the sink, laundry hampers overflowing or food disappearing from refrigerators. Then we suddenly realize just how quiet it is all the time. And that can be unnerving.
But it's also exciting, with a wealth of opportunity that we haven't seen since, well, before we had children. Like most changes in our lives, having a positive outlook is essential to happily adapting to this new life without kids under our roof. The key, according to many researchers, is to plan ahead [sources: Complete Wellbeing; Hall].
The reality is our children will grow up, and unless we want them dependent on us for the long haul, they're going to leave at some point in time. Though it's normal to concentrate on our day-to-day responsibilities, we also want to make sure that we're proactive and planning for the eventuality of our children striking out on their own [source: Hall]. As most empty-nesters will tell you, it comes soon enough.
For starters, get a handle on the changes ahead.
What Changes After the Kids Are Grown?
When your children leave home, a part of you goes with them. So it's understandable that we often feel an ache in our hearts as they turn the page on the next chapter of their lives.
If that heartache persists, don't ignore or discount the possibility that you might be suffering from empty nest syndrome. These feelings of sadness, depression and even grief are quite natural, and quite real. Women who are stay-at-home moms are particularly susceptible, as their job is dramatically altered once their children leave [source: Psychology Today].
Also keep in mind that the turmoil caused by the kids leaving often coincides, sometimes cruelly, with the onset of our own mid-life changes. That's true for both women undergoing the more obvious symptoms of menopause and men suffering from the more subtle signs of "male menopause."
Parenting is also a considerable part of our identity. Children grow up, but we never stop being parents. That's why, when the kids leave, we're sometimes left with a huge void in our lives. It's normal to feel a sense of loss, but it shouldn't be paralyzing [source: Goyer].
Telltale signs of empty nest syndrome include (but aren't limited to) depression or unrelenting sadness, excessive and uncontrollable crying, insomnia, a lack of enthusiasm for normal routines or even friends and low energy. Don't suffer in silence. Isolation can be a devastating obstacle to enjoying our second half-century. Seek counseling.
Next up, a few time-honored tips to make your empty nest more comfortable.
Tips for Having Fun at Home After the Kids Are Grown
Relationships require work. When you have kids, it's easy (and understandable) to get distracted and focus on them. But when they're gone, relationship troubles can get magnified. Take some of that newfound time and reconnect with your spouse [source: Schmitz]. Just remember, you're not the same person you were 20 to 25 years ago, and neither is your partner. The idea isn't to recapture the past, but to write a new future together.
Reclaim your house. Renovate or redecorate. Your children are creating a new identity -- it's OK for you to do the same (just let them know if you're commandeering their bedrooms). Those extra rooms make for great hobby nooks. If work allows, you can even set up a home office with a computer station. Get on the Internet, and reach out to other empty-nesters at places like the parenting forum on the American Association of Retired Persons Web site [source: AARP]. You'll be pleasantly surprised at the community of people in the same situation.
Pursue your passions. For example, eat better. Remember all those exotic dishes you wanted to try but your kids complained? Now is the time to expand your culinary talents. The same goes for any hobby you always dreamed of doing. Join a book club, an investment club, an art club, a music ensemble, a signing group, a wine club, or a garden club, to name just a few.
Exercise in front of the television -- nobody's watching! Take up an instrument -- nobody's listening (plus, it can be incredibly beneficial for reawakening long-dormant neural pathways). Relish in your newfound freedom.
Of course, you can also find fun outside the home.
Tips for Having Fun Outside After the Kids Are Grown
After a quarter century of focusing on what happens inside the four walls of your home, it's time to embrace the world outside. Here are a few tips to consider:
- Explore. Whether it's a weekend escape or a month-long adventure, travel is a terrific outlet, both solo and with your partner. What better reason to buy that zippy little sports car you've always dreamed of? Visit siblings and friends, and re-energize those relationships.
- Reconnect with work. Or start a second career, or even a new business venture. You've earned the right to be more selective at this stage of your life. The talents required to successfully run a house full of kids aren't all that different from managing a business. Don't underestimate how those skills translate to the workplace, if that's where you want to take them. One caveat: Beware of allowing work to become all-consuming. Don't let your job become an excuse to ignore your partner [source: Schmitz].
- Go back to school. Researchers agree that the more engaged we are mentally, the better our overall health. While online classes are fine, they don't bring the same sense of community as attending a class at your local community college or adult education center. You can go for something more cerebral, such as nutrition or medieval history or astrology, or something that's just for fun, like a dance class or scrapbooking.
Family dynamics can be complicated, and so is the impact of children leaving home. For more information, keep reading.
- Goyer, Amy. "Empty Nests Filled with Opportunities." AARP. Sept. 2, 2010 (may 17, 2011) http://www.aarp.org/relationships/parenting/info-09-2010/goyer_empty_nest.html
- Hall, Kathleen. "Five Solutions for Surviving the Empty Nest Syndrome." The Woman's Connection. (May 19, 2011) http://www.womans-connection.com/ar_five_solutions_for_surviving_the_empty_nest_syndrome.htm
- Fifty is the New Forty. "Empty Nest: Syndrome or Serenity" (May 19, 2011) http://www.fiftyisthenewforty.net/family/empty-nest/
- McGraw, Phil. "Parenting, Empty Nest." DrPhil.com. (May 19, 2011) http://www.drphil.com/articles/article/105
- Psychology Today. "Empty Nest Syndrome." March 4, 2009 (May 19, 2011) http://www.psychologytoday.com/conditions/empty-nest-syndrome
- Rosenthal, Joshua. "Living a Fulfilling Life After the Kids Leave Home." WomenOf.com. (May 18, 2011) http://www.womenof.com/Living_a_Fulfilling_Life_After_the_Kids_Leave_Home-Article.aspx
- Schmitz, Charles and Elizabeth Schmitz. "Five Strategies for Dealing with the Empty Nest Syndrome." Psychology Today. Oct. 7, 2010 (May 18, 2011) http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/building-great-marriages/201010/five-strategies-dealing-the-empty-nest-syndrome
- Shah, Dhanishta. "Dealing With Empty Nest Syndrome." Complete Wellbeing. May 22, 2009 (May 18, 2011). http://completewellbeing.com/article/living-in-an-empty-nest/
- Sherman, Amy. "After the Kids Leave, What Next?" EzineArticles. (May 19, 2011) http://ezinearticles.com/?After-the-Kids-Leave,-What-Next?&id=2642186
- TwoOfUs.org. "Reconnecting with Your Spouse after the Kids Leave." National Healthy Marriage Resource Center. (May 18, 2011) http://www.twoofus.org/educational-content/articles/reconnecting-with-your-spouse/index.aspx