What They Don’t Tell You about the Empty Nest Syndrome

Photo copyright by Lorna Tedder

What they don’t tell you about the Empty Nest Syndrome is that there are generally two ways it plays out.  

Most often, I see the kids trying to leave home and start new lives for themselves while their parents become very controlling.  By the time the kids leave, the kids can’t wait to get away and have a  little freedom.  Mom and Dad want to account for every moment of the last year at home and parent-child relationships become very prickly.  For the parents, it’s an unwelcome change and they are trying to freeze their babies in time rather than recognize them as individuals getting that first shot at inventing who they’ll be as adults, mistakes and all.  I saw this all the time when my older daughter left home a few years ago and I’m seeing it now in my younger daughter’s senior year of high school.  Their friends’ parents drive me crazy, so certainly they drive their kids crazy.

What I’ve seen less often–and mostly in cases of single moms who’ve been the rock of their teens’ existence–is something of the reverse.  The children want to venture out into the world and create themselves as adults with ideas, careers, homes, and mates of their own…but they want that security and stability of their parents, frozen in time as they were.  Just as the parents in the first scenario have trouble seeing their children as men and women, the kids in the second case have trouble seeing their parents as men and women separate from being Dad or Mom. 

This is where I’m feeling caught now with my own Empty Nest Syndrome, even though I had little to no issue at all in August 2008 when Shannon, my eldest, left home.  It’s caught me completely off-guard–for reasons I never expected–and I am having a really difficult time with it.  Not for what the  future holds for my kids or that they’re leaving to go out in the world.  No, that’s something I’ve prepared for and  hope I’ve given them as much support as possible to go forth and prosper.    No, this is more about my own personal struggle and feeling caught between staying the same for them and reinventing myself when Aislinn leaves in about 6 months.  The gates of opportunity are wide open for me suddenly–the first time since I married in 1986–because come next summer, the legalities of my custody agreement relent and I will be free to leave Okaloosa County and go anywhere in the world I want, for any job I want, with any lover I want.  I’ve spent the last 6 years held hostage to my divorce agreements or else lose custody of my children.  I’ve declined interviews for promotions and better jobs in other cities and I’ve watched men I loved move away without me, but I’ve never had to consider longer than 30 seconds that my girls came first and regardless of any personal sacrifice, I was staying for them. 

Now, all that is about to change in a few months, and I’m facing uncertainty I have not faced since I left college to seek my career  and later when I divorced and had to figure out if I could afford to eat. Those were the two major life decisions, really, for me:  that mid-20’s start-a-career-and-marry-and-where-will-I-land decision and that mid-40’s get-divorced-and-can-I-support-myself-and-my-kids-without-failing decision.  Now it’s suddenly all about me and what I want?  Wow.  That’s never really been a choice before.  It’s always been under the influence of others and what was best for others, whether that was my husband or children.

I’ve had a few female friends rejoice in the Empty Nest Syndrome, telling me that it was finally “me-time” for them.  It’s interesting that most of them also tried to maintain a very tight control over the children and, though it was “me-time,” they didn’t actually pursue a new life, new hobbies, anything different.  Those who did reinvent themselves were truly inspiring to me.  I have loved watching old friends take up international travel in their 50’s, hiking the Camino or traipsing through jungles.  I’ve seen others sell everything and move to a new city with a new career, finally going after what they’ve put off for 20-plus years.  They seem to have some of the healthiest mother-child relationships I’ve observed.  That’s not to say that parents who don’t make major lifestyle changes are bad, but I think that the kids going off to college don’t realize that it’s a brave new world not just for them but for the “old folks” left behind.

It must be as hard on the kids to see Mom reinvent herself as it is to see the young ones fledge.  A former boyfriend of mine used to complain that he left home to see the world and when he returned, his parents had moved a couple of states away and his home, his roots, his security was gone.  He spoke of it often, and it was clearly disconcerting to him. 

A friend of mine raised her family through seemingly insurmountable odds, sacrificed all her dreams to keep them safe and happy.  As soon as she got the youngest off to college and was all alone in a big rambling house, she moved to a new home, kicked her career into high gear, and found a brand new love like she’d never had…and her children shunned her for at last going after her dreams.  They wanted to spread their own wings, but wanted her to remain the same.  It was years of estrangement before they accepted their mother as more than just their mom and began to support what she’d put on hold for them. 

That’s not really the case at this point with my own daughters, but I’m feeling it all the same.  International travel is something that I’ve only had a taste of and have longed for, but I had to put it aside to be home and available for my kids.  It’s funny that they both are actively planning overseas trips as soon as possible, and that I’m still planning the possibility of a trip around their schedules.  Can I do the Camino in June?  Will Aislinn be living at home still?  Will Shannon be home for the summer?  Could I afford to take the girls with…drat, no.  I’m still thinking of the family instead of thinking of me and my new life.

I’m caught in the in-between right now.  I feel the resistance, even at a subtle level, when I talk about the opportunities that are now starting to show up for my future. It feels like a time will come when they’re both gone–and they do plan to go far from the home they grew up in and leave me alone here–that I’ll be able to fashion a boldly different life for myself if I choose.  The problem for me is this time of uncertainty, of feeling discouraged from making decisions about big changes that will mean I’m no longer the rock that they can count on to be the same.  I have a bazillion choices right now, and some are looking very tasty but I dare not make those yet and I’m quite sure my kids will disapprove if I make them now.  Everything’s uncertain right now, a mix of excitement for the future and scariness over the future.  It’s far harder to make those big changes the second time in 25 years than the first.  More inertia to hold me in place, and especially how such new changes for me will affect my grown-up kids–a mindset that’s been in place their whole lives and isn’t easy to change overnight.

I think after the nest is empty and there’s no longer a physical place for them to come back to, I’ll be just fine in whatever my new path turns out to be, wherever I go, whoever travels my path with me.  But for now…well, let’s just say that transitions suck.