A common term is bandied around to package our feelings when our child leaves home. We are experiencing ’empty nest syndrome’, a handy descriptor to explain the clash of thoughts and feelings that erupt at that moment, many not anticipated or previously experienced.
A social descriptor, rather than a clinical diagnosis, ’empty nest syndrome’ is commonly associated with feelings of sadness, loneliness or emotional stress at finding oneself childless in the home, after 18 odd years of parenting. But it’s more complex, and felt differently for everyone as all aspects of childrearing, partnering and parenting, life choices, values, hopes, dreams, regrets, indecision, and memories, merge and explode in often unexpected ways. As with so many aspects of a woman’s life, we don’t really talk about it much. We just have this handy term, to take care of it: empty nest syndrome.
It can strike when any child leaves, not just the only, the first, or the last. (Think of a rising melancholy as you stare into their abandoned bedroom, regardless of two chaotic populated rooms on either side.) Said child has probably gone away to Uni or college, or maybe just decided to go it alone with friends, or moved for their first ‘proper’ job.
‘Empty nest syndrome’ is a useful term in normalising a sense of loss, a new lack of purpose maybe (the physicality of parenting removed after some 18 years of dependency. Does it capture the excitement, the hope, the colour of success and possibility, also experienced by some?
In fact, despite a well embedded notion that it’s par for the course, research indicates not as many parents feel empty nest syndrome as we might think.
It depends how we’re wired, the quality of our relationship with the departing child, and a bunch of non-related factors. Like what else is going on with life and the universe, before, during and after.
Empty nest syndrome has been the go-to phrase for so long, that it unwittingly masks the complexity of the event, reducing it to a tick list of emotions.
While it’s real for some, this simple term seems to reduce our language around the experience, and curtail our capacity to share the richness of our stories. It dominates the narrative, leaving quieter, sometimes less palatable stories unheard (and hence ‘not normal’). It pre-determines what the experience will be. This profound human experience, this time in our lives, needs to express itself through a far more colourful palette!
Many embrace the empty nest. Without guilt or sorrow. That is, without the syndrome.
Some have longed for it. Some feel relief, a lightness of being. Free. Some feel OK with feeling OK, while others feel guilty about feeling OK. To even contemplate such things may feel like a betrayal – to child, family, self. A heinous truth, a guilty secret. (Let’s stick with ’empty nest syndrome’. Easier!)
This experience, the emptying of the nest, is not just one of learning to fill time and let go. It is one of reflection and personal enquiry: did I do ok? Did I get it right? It is understanding the relationship is growing into something new now. It is the start of understanding more of ourselves and the way we feel and respond and cope and love. It forces reflection on the 18 odd years before, and the choices we made, around family, values, and everything tangentially related.
Sharing our grief, our inexplicable feelings, our concerns, our joy, are part of the stage. Our stories from this time will help others, as they help shape the next chapter of life, already galloping ahead, unstoppable.