Empty Nest vs. Empty Heart: How to Stay Positive When Your Kids Move Out

BY MELISSA ROWE — For many women, much of our lives have been consumed by parenting. Rarely has there been a role more important or more meaningful than this. So it’s no surprise why there’s so much pain when our children finally move on to college or university, or if they’ve landed their dream job or lover and move out. And once the last child leaves home, it isn’t just the nest that feels empty. It’s our hearts, too!

Parents who have an especially difficult transition may be suffering from empty nest syndrome. And although it isn’t an official diagnosis, empty nest syndrome is very real — and it hurts.

The key for many women is finding meaning outside the maternal script. This means embarking on a new chapter that doesn’t involve fulfilling the needs of your children. Nor does it involve counting on them for your own happiness. Remember, this transition isn’t just exciting for your children — it should be a good time for you, too.  Managing it effectively is crucial in creating a life that brings pleasure in realizing your potential, outside the restrictive boundaries of parenthood.  

“When mothers talk about the depression of the empty nest, they’re not mourning the passing of all those wet towels on the floor, or the music that numbs your teeth, or even the bottle of capless shampoo dribbling down the shower drain. They’re upset because they’ve gone from supervisor of a child’s life to a spectator. It’s like being the vice president of the United States.” — Erma Bombeck

Redefine and Recreate

Coping with an empty nest is much like grieving a loss. Life events like retiring or getting divorced are all examples of losses that must go through the mourning process. Not only must we work through our emotions of profound sadness, but we must also recognize each loss has greatly impacted our identities.

When our children move out, the grieving process is much the same. Many of us think we can adjust to such loss by simply getting used to it. But the better solution is to replace the void our kids left behind — with something just as meaningful.

Staying Busy by Staying Present

If you’re a woman who’s enjoyed close relationships with your children, you’ve spent a lot of time focusing on their lives — instead of staying present in your own. Once the children move out, empty nesters may be uncomfortable with all this free time. That’s because you’re left all alone with your thoughts, and no one to confront except your very self. The silence (and eerie stillness) can be deafening — and certainly terrifying.

It’s easy to tell a middle-aged woman to ‘find some hobbies’. But the truth is that’s difficult for those of us who’ve done nothing except ensure our own children are chasing their dreams. Seeking out new interests is a life skill that takes time to master. It involves developing a passion, cultivating a curious mind, and truly discovering who you are at the core. These are the skills you can then use to go out into the world and ‘find those hobbies’.

So, what do you do in the meantime as you work on the basics? For starters, you stay busy by staying in the present. Being fully present means focusing on the task in front of you, even if it’s scrubbing the toilet. Mindfulness will cultivate busyness, and it’s through this process that those ‘hobbies’ will present themselves naturally.

Remember that empty nest syndrome is common, and very real. If your feelings of sadness are getting worse, instead of better, there’s no shame in seeking expert help. Rely on therapists, mental health professionals and even online blogs — to get the support you deserve. 

Here are some recommended links that you my find interesting or useful:

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