I’m a self-professed survivor of Empty Nest Syndrome. Well, technically I’m just a half-survivor since our youngest hasn’t yet graduated from high school. But I’m going with the word survivor nonetheless.
Our oldest left for college last fall (yep, that was about a year ago). It has taken me this long to process how such a milestone affected me, and to understand that even the departure of one child can turn a household sideways. Notice I didn’t say upside down (like the dark world in Stranger Things). That’s because I don’t think an Empty Nest is a bad thing….it’s an adjustment.
From the moment our high school senior confirmed her college choice that spring until we kissed her goodbye at the dorm, our family was caught up in a whirlwind of activity. Everything was super busy with all of the college paperwork, planning and logistics; super celebratory with all of the “end-of” activities like prom, graduation, friends’ grad parties; super fun with cramming in our family adventures and vacation prior to the big Freshman Orientation send-off; and even super organized while shopping for dorm room decor, and making sure we had covered all items on the move-in day checklist (ok, that part was a bit stressful). But all in all it was an enjoyable and memorable time.
Then, in the blink of an eye, I found myself making our daughter’s bed in the dorm room — and poof! We were back at home — where it was oddly quiet. Things felt really strange.
I assumed after drop off that all would pretty much carry on per usual in our home since we weren’t officially going to have an empty nest just yet, but I was wrong. How could my busy life of raising two children as a stay-at-home-mom (SAHM) for the past 18 years all of a sudden feel so askew with just one departed child? When I searched online for the definition of Empty Nest Syndrome to try and shed light on this, here’s what good ol’ Wikipedia informed me:
“Empty nest syndrome is a feeling of grief and loneliness parents may feel when their children leave home for the first time, such as to live on their own or to attend a college or university. It is not a clinical condition.”
Whoa, did you catch that last line? The best news yet — it is not a clinical condition! Let’s all take a moment and celebrate that part. Whether it’s your first, only, or last child to fly, take it as a hint that one can get through this thing no matter how sad we may feel at times.
A friend had heard from an experienced empty-nester that the first week was especially hard but then things improve. So the two of us decided to create a 1-week countdown to help get through it — sending each other encouraging texts throughout those first seven days. Just five more days ’til we aren’t feeling down anymore! Then it was just four days! And so on until a week was over. I was definitely feeling less emotional but things still felt off, especially when I walked by my daughter’s quiet, person-less bedroom.
What I soon realized was that I needed to stay busy, but quickly found that busy work alone wasn’t going to cut it. Saying yes to anything that came my way would only make me feel resentful of time wasted if I wasn’t doing something that gave me a sense of purpose.
I enjoyed working on long-overdue house projects for a while, and toyed with the idea of catching up on things like family scrapbooks, but I really needed something just for me. What did the trick was getting more involved in helping others through a philanthropic organization I’ve been dabbling in for the past few years, ramping up my Zumba and swimming routines to stay active, and focusing on my writing efforts as a content creator.
If you work outside the home, that alone may bring you fulfillment. But if this doesn’t describe your situation, that’s fine too. Perhaps you still feel a longing for something more meaningful. And for SAHM’s such as myself, finding something with meaning is imperative to take flight from the Empty Nest Syndrome slump.
Because my mission with litetherapy.org is to exchange helpful ideas and information to make life a little brighter, I have outlined below some tips I have encountered along the way that just might do the trick in helping one overcome Empty Nest Syndrome. No matter where you fall on the Empty Nest spectrum — just starting to feel anxious about your child heading off soon, parent of a recently departed child, or one who’s still struggling with how to re-focus a life with the kids no longer at home — I hope at least one of these proves helpful.
Empty Nest Syndrome Survival Tips
Find a meaningful outlet that gives you a sense of purpose – This can be a tough one! If nothing specific comes to mind at first, think back to what you enjoyed doing when you were younger. What was that thing where you’d lose track of time while doing it? Perhaps it was writing, painting, playing an instrument, running, coding, playing soccer, fishing, sailing, dancing, cooking, etc. If you’re having trouble remembering what that might be, it’s okay to call a parent, sibling, or childhood friend and ask for a clue! Delving back into a former activity you once loved can be heavenly, and may even set you on a path towards a new business opportunity.
If you’re still having trouble identifying how you’d like to spend your newfound free time, don’t despair. Check out this insightful book I enjoyed called, I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was: How to Discover What You Really Want and How to Get It, by Barbara Sher.
No matter how long this step takes, though, try to stay positive that you will soon find your happy place.
Be aware of signs around you – One of my favorite motivational speakers, Wayne Dyer, has been quoted as saying that everything you need you already have. I believe this! For example, I knew I wanted to start writing again and my first blog post, Attitude is Everything, ended up being based on a quote I literally had hanging next to my desk for 13 years. So what I needed then I really did already have! You may also have a clue staring you in the face right now of where your life’s purpose is hiding — you just need to be open to seeing the signs.
Take a class or find a workshop on something of interest – I’m not saying you have to go back to school to get another degree, but taking a class or workshop in an area of interest can be a great way to get motivated on a new path you’ve been considering. Teaching? Horticulture? Counseling? Writing a book? Designer? Property Manager? Restauranteur? The choice is endless. But you’ll never know it’s your true calling until you put your toe in the water and take that first step.
Start an Empty Nest Survivors Club in your friend group or neighborhood – Spending time with friends on a monthly or quarterly basis who are going through the same experience can be therapeutic. This could mean meeting up at a local coffee or yogurt shop, going out for dinner or drinks after work, or gathering at a friend’s home with a new host each month. The choice for connection is yours. Just think twice before inviting Mildred to join in on the conversation, though. You know her – the wet blanket who would rather bring everyone down around her instead of uplift them in a time of need.
Schedule an appointment with a Life Coach – Sometimes having outside perspective on your goals can be helpful in determining the right path. Or just having fresh ears to help articulate or better craft your life’s story can be beneficial. I have a few friends with successful businesses in these areas and would be happy to put you in touch if you’re in need of a referral.
Spend quality time with those still at home
*Start (or increase frequency of!) regular date nights with your spouse or significant other, and remember why you got together in the first place.
*Spend more time with your younger child(ren) – who may not love all the extra attention;) But they may also be missing an older sibling as much as you so focused time might be in order.
*Exercise the dog more or play with other pets who aren’t leash friendly. They will definitely love all the extra attention.
*Make plans to attend Parents Weekend events at your child’s campus which will give you missed hugs to look forward to. And remember, if your college student will be coming home for Thanksgiving or Winter Breaks, you’ll be back together in no time. Feel free to start a countdown calendar for those events now!
Although this past year was difficult for me in some ways, I’m almost grateful for it because it made me confront what I believe makes me the person I am, where my talents lie, and how I prefer to spend my time. I guess that means I feel more like Elizabeth the person now instead of Elizabeth the mom.
Next steps for me? Continue to focus on the daily activities that bring me a sense of purpose. And make a mental note that when our youngest is ready to fly, plan a getaway or something special to look forward to during that first tough week. I’ve heard that helps with the adjustment too.
Honestly, though, I’m not going to stress about having a truly empty nest. I know I’ll survive, just as you will. And as friends with older children ultimately remind me, our kids never really leave us – especially if we plan a fun family vacation! They will be there to join in on the fun.
So best wishes to you all no matter what stage you’re in. And if you’re a recently departed college student reading this, send your parents a text today. Trust me, it will make their day to hear from you.
P.S. If you have empty nest experience and helpful tips to share, please do so! We’d love to hear what has worked for you.
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