We spend our whole lives planning for the next stage: our education, career paths, perhaps marriage and children and then retirement and golden years. But there is an important life stage that usually falls between raising children and retirement that is often overlooked: the early empty nest years. Life changes significantly when the kids leave the house, and it can be startling after years of having them home every day. Thinking ahead can help future empty nesters prepare for everything from emotional changes to re-organizing the home.
How will you feel?
For multi-children family, the most emotional part of the experience is not usually when the nest is completely empty, but when it starts to get less crowded. The first child leaving comes with completely new feelings. “You had this type of worry where ‘where’s my kid’ at all times. And now you really don’t get to know. And that’s very strange for different types of mothering,” said Lauren Zander, life coach and chairwoman of Handel Group, a corporate consulting and life coaching company based in New York and Connecticut. Even if parents tried to mentally prepare for a child’s absence, the experience is often completely different than what they expect. Since the empty space at the table will be noticed by the entire family, it’s important to plan family dinner or movie nights, and try to get everyone to as many practices and recitals as possible. On weekends, trade off deciding on a fun activity to do together. The memories will make the transition easier for the whole family, especially everyone still at home.
When the nest is truly empty, free time stares people in the face. For some, this initially brings feelings of happiness, which is often mixed with guilt and surprise according to Zander. It’s a completely new type of freedom. “But the freedom can be a void if you’re not prepared to enjoy it,” she said.
How can you fill your free time?
Many people need a new purpose in order to make the most of their free time when they no longer have the usual daily parenting responsibilities. Finding a job may do the trick. Zander has her clients ask themselves three questions when they begin the search: “What do I love?” “What am I good at?” “Who do I know?” Start by making these three lists. It can help lead you to a meaningful job. Classes are also a great way to discover a new passion. Visit the local library to see what they offer. There is now time to learn to paint or cook or join the book club with fun selections. Take advantage of it.
Social lives change when children leave, as friendships are no longer attached to their schedules. There’s more time and freedom to go out for dinner and drinks on a weekday. It’s important to invest in these relationships. Friends can be a great source of support during the adjustment period, where so many changes seem to be happening at once.
How will your marriage change?
An empty nest often changes the dynamic of a marriage. “What hits people is…their marriage hits them in their face. [It’s] like ‘ok, it’s just you and me baby, I hope I like you.’” She said most of the time that’s a good thing. But it can also reveal just how much the marriage revolved around children, and if someone has never noticed this before, it can be difficult to face.
Zander finds people often overlook the fact that an empty nest is a great opportunity to re-evaluate goals and dreams with their partner. Communication is key, even when it comes to simple matters like how to spend free time. If someone spends too much time socializing without his/her spouse, s/he might feel abandoned. Zander asks clients, “Do you want to downsize or stay where you are? What do you both envision doing with the empty room(s)? Does one person have to start working now that the kids are gone?” These are important decisions to make with a partner. Raising a family is often a huge piece of marriage. When that is done, it’s key to agree on new dreams together.
When will you talk to your children?
New empty nesters sometimes have a fantasy that their kids are going to miss them and want to call and talk to them all of the time. This likely won’t happen, as the child is adjusting to newfound freedom as well. They are probably typically only going to call when they need money, Zander warned.
It’s important that parents respect their child’s freedom instead of resenting it. Zander advises parents not to expect a call. If they’re really feeling a void, she suggests parents schedule a time to talk with their child once a week.
When can you re-decorate?
One of the biggest decisions empty nesters face is what to do with their child’s room. Zander encourages parents to talk to their kids before moving forward with redecoration plans. “The biggest mistake anybody ever makes that I’ve heard over and over again is that the parent literally leaves no evidence that the kid was ever there,” she said. A conversation is important so everyone’s expectations for the room are aligned. When the conversation is over, the speed that the project is finished depends on how fast you are able to let go of your kids’ childhoods and really settle in to your empty nest.
Where can you turn if you need more help?
The experience of transitioning to and empty nest is different for everyone. Below is a list of further resources including websites with more information on empty nest syndrome and names of therapists on Long Island.
Life In Transition With Natalie Caine– The website offers articles and blog posts with more information. Caine also offers different types of individual and group life coaching.
The Transition Network– An online support system for women over 50 experiencing different types of transitions.
Check lipulse.com Monday, Aug. 22 for tips on how to decorate your empty nest.