If your child recently moved out—to attend college or live elsewhere – you might be experiencing a sense of withdrawal. Perhaps you can’t bear to think about “your baby” without tearing up. Then again, this is 2015, so you also might feel like celebrating.
The empty nest, a term first used in the early 1970s to describe the post-parental period of family life, was considered a 20th-century phenomenon, the result of mom and dad living longer. It was often portrayed as a dreaded event, especially for women. But times have changed.
Today, with the majority of women in the workplace and busy in their own lives, being a mother is rarely a woman’s only role. Many even experience the opposite of the empty nest, enjoying newfound freedom and reconnecting with their partners.
Besides, this is no longer a woman’s problem. Because men now devote nearly three times more time to childcare—7 hours daily compared to 2.5 in 1965—today’s dads are just as likely to miss the kids when the household shrinks.
Technology and parenting trends also play a role. Parents and children can—and do—stay in touch more easily and enjoy closer relationships than generations in the past. Thus, while a child’s moving out still signals a significant change in family life, it doesn’t have to feel like a loss. Here are five important insights that can help to make the transition smoother—and healthier—for both generations.
Resist meddling in your young adult’s life: “Our job as parents,” says former Stanford University dean Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of How to Raise an Adult, “is to put ourselves out of a job.” At its best, an empty nest signifies a job well done. If you allowed your children to participate in family life and to earn privileges by being responsible and capable, they’re ready for independence. If not, now’s the time to let go. Don’t busy yourself with their course selections, roommate issues, or assignments. Don’t email or text several times a day. When they call with a problem, Lythcott-Haims advises, “Listen thoughtfully, ask some questions based on your own sense of the situation, then say, OK. So how do you think you’re going to handle that?”
Check in with yourself: Especially if you’ve concentrated mostly on your child for the last many years, you might not remember who you are. Interview yourself: Has raising children caused you to put your own interests on hold? What life, work and/or social choices have you made in the past—and why? Are your reasons are still relevant? What are your dreams now? Google “how to figure out what you want,” and you’ll see that you’re not alone.
Reconnect with your partner, if you have one: At best, a child’s leaving can ignite a new spark in your relationship. At worst, once the kids are gone, so is the magic. It depends on the state of your we. Adult relationships are constantly in flux. Ideally, over the long term you’re coordinated—in sync—most of the time. But it’s normal to swing between coexisting and being contentious. Even the best couples don’t see eye-to-eye 69% of the time.
The trick is to not linger at either extreme. Take stock of your we: If you’re like ships passing in the night, date each other again, and promise not to talk about the kids. Try to discover new interests and activities you can do together. Plan an adventure. If you have been stuck at the contentious pole, you might need professional help.
Deliberately cultivate people other than family and close friends: Our loved ones know what we know and go where we go but our more distant acquaintances—or consequential strangers—connect us to novelty and opportunity. They open our eyes. Make lunch dates with college chums, work colleagues, or people you know from the gym, a club, or other interests. Ask what’s new, see where the conversation takes you, and enjoy the view.
If your nest refills, avoid caretaker burnout: “My nest is not empty,” claim the participants of a recent study. Living in households with young adults and aging parents, many are stressed and disappointed about putting their own plans on hold. If you find yourself with an overcrowded nest, have compassion for both generations, but offer help only when you have the energy to give it. And when you don’t, do something nice for yourself.
The truth is, whenever you add or subtract players in your family drama, everyone is bound to feel a difference. Remember, too, that any life change, big or small, is a process, not an event. So take a breath, give yourself a break, and be thankful that in the 21st century, there are many ways to feather your nest.