A month has passed since the dorm drop-off, maybe several if your high school grad had other plans, and quiet fills the empty nest. While some parents quickly adjust, others struggle, and for them there’s a cottage industry of books and blogs, even Pinterest pages. The phrase “empty nest” produces more than 3 million hits in Google search. This certainly isn’t our parents’ empty nest where boomers headed off and never looked back.
While there’s much advice on coping with an empty nest, we wondered why the syndrome seems so widespread in recent years. So we chatted with three experts — a therapist, a blogger and a college admissions administrator — who offered an array of reasons.
Precision parenting — approaching child-rearing like a career — leaves us underemployed when the kids leave, says Wendy Aronsson, a psychotherapist and author of Refeathering the Empty Nest.
Added to that is the expectation that parents will kick-start their own work or play lives with all that free time. “We are living longer and healthier, and have been afforded the opportunity for reinvention in terms of career and hobbies,” says Aronsson. “There’s pressure to do that.”
Among the first-time empty nesters this fall is Katie Couric, who hosted a show with several guests including Flown and Grown blogger Lisa Hefferan, who deposited her youngest son at college this month.
Hefferan points to the “prolonged process” of the nest emptying. Realizing that hands-on parenting isn’t forever, she says, “Parents ratchet up their involvement with children,” which makes it harder to separate when the time comes. And the separation process can take a decade or more. “It begins when the oldest gets his driver’s license and doesn’t end until the youngest gets his own apartment,” she says.
Karen L. Coburn has been observing parents coping with empty nests since the 1985 publication of her book Letting Go, now in its fifth edition. We spoke to her as she was preparing to welcome parents to freshman orientation at Washington University in St. Louis. She recently changed the title of her talk from “Letting Go” to “Letting Go/Staying Connected/Finding Balance.”
“It’s an acknowledgement that parents are struggling more and more with detaching,” she says. Coburn cites several reasons: high expectations because of college costs, the difficulty of starting a career in a post-recession economy, the impact of the recession on parents themselves and a raised anxiety level since 9/11.
She urges parents to keep a sense of perspective. The empty nest is just one stage with others to follow: from graduation to the first job, finding a partner and starting their own family. “While their life and yours may change, that relationship is always there; that doesn’t change,” she says.
Mary W. Quigley’s blog, Mothering21 , tackles parenting of emerging adults and beyond.
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