Not soon after you are holding your newborn baby safely in your arms, you already start to think about how fast the next eighteen years of your lives together are going to go. This thought can bring relief to parents on those really hard parenting days when you are dying for a minute alone or you’re sick of hearing yourself talk about the negative side effects of using cell phones 24 hours day. Knowing that your children will leave you one day also brings a lot of sadness during those special moments with your kids that you wish could last forever. Parents anticipate the time in parenthood when they become an “empty nester” with a combination of joy, pride, sadness and fear. It is a time of exciting transitions and changes for your kids as they fly the coop, but it also is filled with big changes for you as a parent. Watching your teenager launch into the world with such a mix of anxiety and fulfillment is a nice distraction from thinking about how your life will be different for you once they are gone. You want your children to grow up and lead independent lives without you, but at the same time, you feel a lot of grief when the time comes. Not many people have language for this milestone in parenthood, so I am here to help you gain clarity on what you might be experiencing once your teenagers have grown into free birds. Here is what no one tells you about becoming an empty nester.
Your Marriage Changes
I was taught at one of my training in The Gottman Method that married couples can have three marriages throughout their lifetime. The marriage before they had kids, the marriage while raising their kids and the marriage after their kids have left the home. It is so common for couples to enter marital therapy after they become empty-nesters. It is a life cycle change that shakes up the homeostasis in a family and marriage. Kids are often a buffer to the challenges that a marriage is facing and once they are out of the house couples are forced to take a closer look at whatever it is they have been struggling with over the past few years. Many couples get comfortable with putting their marriage last on their list of priorities and the needs of the relationship are secondary to parenting and careers. Other times the children may have been the only thread that kept the marriage together and these couples choose to part ways after their roles as mom and dad are not as demanding. Empty nesters can take this time to re-prioritize the marriage and get to know each other all over again. Trust me, as someone who specializes in teens and young adults, your children are more than fine with you paying less attention to them.
Tip: You and your partner are not the same people you were before you had kids twenty years ago. Start dating each other again by committing to weekly date nights. Find out about each other’s hopes and dreams for the next 10 years and define what makes the marriage work outside of being parents.
Your Identity Changes
Our identities are fulfilled by the roles we play in our lives. The more meaningful a role has in our lives, the more space it takes up in our identities. Because of this, many empty-nesters feel a loss of their identity. Parents have described feeling empty once all of their children have launched. So much of a parent’s focus has been on raising their children over the past two decades that they are often unsure with what to do with themselves once their children are grown. This is felt even more so for parents who have decided to stay home while raising their children. One way to cope with this change is to take this opportunity to re-invent yourself.
Tip: You can now start that hobby you have been thinking about but never had time for. You can spend more time with your spouse, friends and family. You can re-invent your social life. Maybe it’s the perfect time to gain more control of your physical health and actually go to the gym you have been paying for. Some people use this time to find fulfillment in new ways with their career.
You Grieve the Loss of your Children Living in your Home
Grief doesn’t just occur after someone was passed. We grieve the loss of our attachment to people. As an empty-nester you learn to detach lovingly from your children. This process of detachment brings on feelings of sadness and loss. You may find yourself crying in the car out of nowhere as you watch a mother greet her child at the bus stop. You realize that you are constantly playing music because the new silence in the house is so uncomfortable. Lean into the feelings of loss and sadness. There is no way around it, you just have to walk through it. Know that it is normal to feel this grief and it is a part of your ever-changing role as a parent.
Tip: This is a good time to make all of the family photo albums you have been wanting to create but haven’t had the time to do. Send a text to your teen letting them know you are thinking of them or schedule Facetime phone calls. Don’t take it personally if your teen communicates less with you. They are busy figuring out life and they have you to thank in the end.
You Learn to Give Up Control
Your teenager is now an adult and you realize that you cannot make big decisions for them. With this comes the painful act of watching your children fail and make big mistakes. Do not save them. You may know what is best for your child, but they need to figure it out on their own in order to be successful adults. No matter how hard you try, you cannot shield them from pain and discomfort. They need to experience it in order to learn and grow. You have to give up the idea that you can somehow control their future. This is extremely uncomfortable for parents to work through. You can’t email their teachers, you can’t call their bosses and you can’t tell your kids what to do or how to do it. You can only be there to support them when they need it. Most of the time they just need you there to listen and love them for who they are, mistakes and all.
About Justine Carino
Justine Carino, LMHC is a therapist with a private practice in White Plains, NY. She specializes in working with teens, young adults and families struggling with anxiety, depression, family conflicts and relationship issues.
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