30 Aug 2022

Empty Nesters – you’re not alone

By Selina Pratelli, Counsellor

Empty Nesters – you’re not alone. The summer is drawing to a close and for some of us a whole chapter of our lives is drawing to an end with it: the last summer holiday before children fly the nest, off to university or training or moving out to work elsewhere. We have done our job and they are spreading their independent wings. For many this may not come a moment too soon, the extra space, fewer dirty mugs lying around and less endless laundry… but it is a bittersweet moment and can hit some people far harder than expected. It can prompt not just feelings of sadness and what I think of as “reverse homesickness” but prompt a total re-assessment of our life and goals. This can be re-invigorating or daunting or downright devastating. We may have regrets, we’d like to go back and do it all over again, but differently…

“Empty nest”: the fledglings have flown stutteringly or gracefully from that safe nurturing environment. The words are often dismissed with a chuckle but this can be a big life-changer, up there with separation, moving house, and retirement in terms of its potential impact and we trivialise it at our peril. This really is a time to reassess what our priorities are, what we do for ourselves to build meaning and identity beyond our role as a parent.  In the very first days and weeks, the sheer emptiness can feel overwhelming and we might be ashamed to reach out to our peers for fear their experience is less raw and we might be judged. We might also fear the loss of control and worry inordinately about the fledglings’ day to day lives.

Whilst many of these emotions are “normal”, in the sense that it is estimated that around half of all parents encounter them in some way, it affects people in very different ways. It lays bare what else is going on in your life. If you have a busy career the effects might be less pronounced than if you have been a stay-at-home parent, but not necessarily. It will be different for single parents, for larger or smaller families, it may depend on the support network you have. For some, it can hit like a wave of grief and as with grief, there’s no “right” way to grieve. It may be enough to commiserate with like-minded parents, but they may not comprehend how differently this can affect us. The common panacea of “Just keeping busy” may not work, and what starts as a temporary low mood can develop into something harder to live with, anxiety, sleeplessness or lack of enthusiasm for things we normally enjoy. Our daily routine has inevitably altered and what do we replace that with, how do we cope with that change?

For a mother this can often coincide with menopause or peri-menopause which has been coming more into the public awareness of late. Anxiety and depression can be side-effects of our waning oestrogen levels, and we may not feel as able to cope with changes in our lives as nimbly and cheerfully as before. It’s a sort of mental health risk double whammy.

Another dimension to the empty nest is the need to adapt to a different kind of relationship with our children: an adult-to-adult relationship which needs a different set of boundaries. It’s a time to re-assess what each person needs and can offer in that relationship and coming to terms with a different role. So there are many moving parts: the changing relationship with our children, the relative emptiness of the house, the change in routine, potentially also a change in the relationship with a partner. It is also a milestone, reminding us of the transience of our existence. All these can lead to a feeling of being knocked off kilter and at a loss as to how to improve our mood and resilience.

If any of this resonates a trained therapist can offer support. If you’ve not tried therapy before, this excellent blog addresses some of the considerations when choosing a therapist. It is important to find someone you feel comfortable with; it is ok to try a few different therapists before finding someone you “click” with so they can best help you on a journey of self-discovery and to develop a more meaningful, satisfying outlook.

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