Why You Might Feel Loneliness When A Child Leaves
A 24-year-old client, who was moving abroad for a lucrative job, came for a therapy session with his parents. Lately, he said, his parents had become quieter, his mother had been crying privately, and he was worried how they would cope in his absence. As I worked with his parents, the first two months were characterized by feelings of emptiness and sadness, particularly in evenings and on weekends, when they used to spend the most time with their son.
When children leave the home to go to university, take a job abroad, or get married, some parents experience a deep longing, despair and loneliness, known as Empty Nest Syndrome.
Psychologist Carin Rubenstein, in her book, Beyond the Mommy Years: How to Live Happily Ever After … After the Kids Leave Home, surveyed about 1,000 women who were coping with the reality of adult children moving out. In her research, she found that Empty Nest Syndrome was clearly characterized by three stages: grief, relief and joy. She found that most mothers, many of whom were not working initially, felt loneliness and missed their children deeply; but gradually, they were able to acknowledge their new-found freedom and even feel joy at having limited responsibilities.
In my practice, the first two stages are particularly poignant for mothers who have defined their lives around their children. In a scenario like this, in which motherhood is the predominant identity, an adult child’s departure can be overwhelming and leave the woman feeling ungrounded; she may have spent close to 18 years prioritizing her children’s needs over her own to an extent that she finds herself devoured by emptiness and loneliness when that singular purpose is gone. One such mother mentioned to me that, because her entire day had been organised around her daughter’s schedules, carpools and healthy meals, she felt depressed in her empty nest, without a sense of purpose or anything to look forward to.
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Parents whose identity is this deeply enmeshed with their children thrive on children’s dependency. When a person’s life is primarily defined as a caregiver and happiness is derived from the role as a parent, this phase can be a crisis. The loneliness can be compounded by guilt, fear and constant worry that their child has not been prepared for the real world.
Empty Nest Syndrome affects fathers, too, but research, though limited, suggests they experience it differently. A male client once confided in me how deeply he felt the harsh reality of not having invested in deep, meaningful friendships with his children, or experiences outside the realm of car pools or hobby classes. His feelings were typical; psychologist Dr. Helen De Vries has found that fathers tend to react to an empty nest with a sense of regret over lost opportunities and the realization that they weren’t as involved as they could have been.
While parents’ emotions may be keenly felt in the moment of departure, many factors are helping today’s parents move on more easily. More women joining the workforce, better connectivity to children thanks to technology, and more affordable travel are mitigating the effects of this empty nest stage.
In my experience, women cope better when they find support systems that allow them to articulate their loneliness and other emotions; for fathers, this could help as well, but may not come as easily, as societal conditioning often prevents men from sharing what they feel. But research clearly shows that many couples, in time, perceive life post-children as a chance to reconnect as partners, invest in their marriage, communicate more, travel and in general spend more quality time together: After his adult daughter moved abroad, a client in his late 40s moved with his wife to a farmhouse, where they farm organically and lead a quiet, meaningful life. He says they feel these are the best innings of their life.
Consciously choosing to learn a skill, maintain healthy schedules that involve exercise and other aspects of self-care, and focus or reinvest in friendships can help people dealing with Empty Nest Syndrome.
Remember the 24-year-old client who came to me with his parents? Gradually, the mother told me that she kind of liked having more time to herself and fewer chores to do. Over three months, the parents established a new routine that included a Tai-Chi class together on weekends, evenings spent with friends and Facetime-ing with their son. The father admitted they could finally holiday more and spend time in solitude, rediscovering each other without the guilt of worrying for their son.
Acknowledging the changed reality and trusting our children can make the transition smoother for yourself and your child; and viewing this transition as an opportunity to rediscover life and exploring the new possibilities can be empowering. As Dr. Margaret Rutherford says, “Your child’s life will be filled with fresh experiences. It’s good if yours is as well.”