September is a month full of grieving parents.
I know, I’ve been one. As much as we love to see our offspring head for the hallowed halls of universities and colleges, some of us grieve their absence.
The summer before my eldest left for McGill, I was as excited as she was for the adventure that was hers to unfold. On a warm September Sunday, the entire family drove to Montreal for lunch and to settle her in residence. Upon our return home, I sat down in her unusually clean, but now empty purple room and cried for two hours.
It only hit me then—she would never again return home as a child.
Two years later I relived the experience when my second child left home. But this time, I knew how bereft I would feel and I dreaded her departure all summer. After leaving her at McGill, we drove to our cottage where, while swimming, I added my tears to the lake. I thought I would literally drown in my sorrows.
Missing my two girls compelled me to drive to Montreal two weeks after classes started just to have lunch with them. They thought this was odd but I needed to see them and to give and get some hugs.
When my son left for university four years later, I had prepared myself and coped a little better.
I never expected the intensity of this grief, just as I never expected the intensity of love I felt for each of my children at their birth. I thought this grief was something that happened to our mothers whom I assumed had nothing to fill their empty nests. (Sorry, Mom-who’s-now-in-heaven!) After all, I had interesting work that I thought would fill my plate. I had a major rethink.
The research on the “empty nest syndrome” surprised me. I found I was in a minority. Some researchers have even called it a myth.
In her 2008 study of 142 couples whose eldest had just left home, Dr. Christine Proulx of the University of Missouri, found many parents relish the change and enjoy it while it’s occurring. Distance seemed to strengthen bonds with firstborns, as parent-child relationships became more “peer-like” and as parents became mentors to their children. They were proud to watch their offspring mature and gain independence.
Dr. Karen Fingerman’s research had similar findings–most parents enjoyed greater freedom, a reconnection with their spouses and more time to pursue their own goals and interests once their children leave home. Like Dr. Proulx’s research, parents in her studies reported that seeing a child start down the path toward successful adulthood gave them a feeling of joy and pride and their relationship with their child improved for many of them.
Another earlier study of approximately 1,100 mothers concluded that only 10 percent of those who had experienced an empty nest reported feeling acute loneliness or having trouble adjusting to the change. In the same study, more than 25 percent of mothers said that their favorite stage of motherhood was when their children no longer lived at home.
Men are less prepared for the emotional impact of a child leaving home, Wheaton College professor of psychology Helen DeVries reported in Psychology Today. Her findings agree with Fingerman’s. For women the empty nest is not such a terrible thing, but rather they view it as an opportunity to move on. Dr. DeVries found that men expressed regret for the things they didn’t do and opportunities they didn’t take to be with their children.
Some psychologists reported that some parents feel guilty because they don’t grieve, while others feel incompetent because they do. I think the important thing is to accept your own reactions as valid and if you are grieving, to find ways to help yourself. Like most mothers, I did move on.
For those who have have difficulty with this transition, The Mayo Clinic provides some wonderful advice:
- Accept the timing.Avoid comparing your child’s timetable to your own personal experience. Instead, focus on what you can do to help your child succeed when he or she does leave home.
- Keep in touch. You can continue to be close to your children even when you live apart. Make an effort to maintain regular contact through visits, phone calls, emails, texts or video chats.
- Seek support.If you’re having a difficult time dealing with an empty nest, lean on loved ones and other close contacts for support. Share your feelings. If you feel depressed, consult your doctor or a mental health provider.
- Stay positive.Thinking about the extra time and energy you might have to devote to your marriage or personal interests after your last child leaves home might help you adapt to this major life change.
My daughters gave me permission to post this article.
What was your reaction when your children first left home? I would love to hear from you–please leave a response in the the Reply Box below.