Moving Beyond the Empty Nest

It is over in the blink of an eye, or so they say. That bundle of joy that needed constant care and attention is suddenly flying solo, and the nest is left quiet and empty. The years spent coddling and coaching as a parent have flown by. Though the days were long, the years were short and now a huge transition looms ahead. All that was consuming is now gone, and the gap of uncertainty results in a wide range of reactions.

On one extreme, some parents slap high fives, spontaneously break out in celebratory dances and look to the future with wild-eyed anticipation. On the other end of the spectrum, some parents figuratively collapse and stare at the abyss in despair, thinking they no longer have a purpose in life. Many others are somewhere in between … with varying levels of uncertainty, mixed emotions and occasional flutters to take a leap of faith and fly in a new direction.

As new parents, we had a wealth of resources at our fingertips, including countless books filled with advice from the trenches and numerous social groups to remind us we were not alone on our sleep-deprived, bittersweet journey. As the end goal approaches, however, the number of books and support groups dwindle, and it is easy to see how someone could feel very alone as they approach the empty-nester phase of life.

When embarking on any new journey, we want to know what to expect, what to avoid and what advice can get us through it. Whether you are in the midst of becoming an empty-nester, approaching it or standing on the sidelines, the more you know about this new phase of life, the more equipped you will be to find the joy of the journey, and to encourage others as well!

What to Expect

In the beginning, it is going to be emotional. “I have one child who is now 29,” recalls Dr. Paul Chafetz, a clinical psychologist in Dallas. “After high school, when we put him on a plane, I wept like a baby for about half an hour. It was enormous. That was the moment of transition into the world. It is a big, big moment, and it deserves some tears.”

Christine Boudreau is a certified life coach located in Frisco. She shares, “Going through anything like this is all about change, and most of us, as human beings, resist change. That is a normal thing to do. I think that is why it is so scary for some people.”

If this sounds like you, Prochaska’s transtheoretical model (TTM) of change can help identify your progress through six stages of change: pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance and termination/adoption. “It gives them a language to describe what they are feeling,” Ms. Boudreau says. Sometimes, when she talks to her clients, Ms. Boudreau finds it beneficial to explain the TTM scientific theory.

The Kübler-Ross model outlines the five stages of personal loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. “If you over-identify yourself in the role of the parent, and you believe your role is now dead, it is a loss,” Ms. Boudreau explains. “You may think you are no longer a parent of this child, but they still need your advice and help. They are just not under your roof.”

With any change, Ms. Boudreau says it is important to assess how much awareness and acceptance of the change exists. Is the parent aware of their own thoughts and beliefs about becoming an empty-nester? “It is not so much about the kid leaving the house as it is about the parent’s opinions, thoughts and beliefs about the kid leaving the house,” Ms. Boudreau says.

Another tool Ms. Boudreau likes to use is Eric Berne’s transactional analysis, in which there are three ego states: the child ego, the parent ego and the adult ego. She explains, “I think as parents, we assume we always have to be in the parent ego state, and the child has to be in the child ego state, and that is true when they are younger, but as [the child] starts getting into that 10-12 age, they both start moving into that adult role. Ideally, we all operate from the adult ego state all the time, unless we are being creative and playful or we need someone to take control during a crisis.”

Regardless of which model you choose to use, Dr. Chafetz points out that there are three components to every transition: emotional, cognitive and behavioral factors. “There are both pleasant and unpleasant emotions. This is totally normal. Part of the process of completing the transition is to acknowledge the emotions, both positive and negative, to fully experience them and process them.”

Potential Pitfalls

So, as parents move in and out of these various stages, what are some potential bumps in the road that might slow progress? Dr. Chafetz describes leisure impairment, which is not having leisure or occupational activities that add meaning to your day, which can be a recipe for a bad outcome. He also recommends paying attention to who is communicating with whom. “If the parent is calling or texting the child more than the other way around, that would be a warning sign for me,” he says.

Kathy Peel, the author of 21 books on life and family management, says the lack of boundaries can be a surprise when your child’s schedule no longer gives structure to your day. Carol Pavlik, MA, LPC and LMFT at Carol Pavlik Counseling, also references the common loss of identity and purpose as an empty-nester, as well as the distinct possibility that your spouse may not be on the same mental page as you are during this process. According to Ms. Boudreau, other potential pitfalls include feeling guilty, wishing you could have done more, not letting go and succumbing to “Negative Nancy.” “Whatever your doubts, fears and insecurities are, Negative Nancy is on the sidelines cheering all that on. Do not let the negative cheerleader in your mind hold you hostage,” Ms. Boudreau advises. “One of the biggest pitfalls is not mentally preparing for the change prior to the change happening. It is like changing a tire while you are still driving your car in a snowstorm.”

Moving Forward

So, how do parents prepare for the journey ahead and try to avoid pitfalls? Fortunately, those who have gone before us, as well as experts in the field, have several suggestions. Despite how easy it might be to think of all the things that could go wrong, Ms. Pavlik says it is important to stay positive, to put little things in your day that bring you joy and to start thinking of what really makes you happy. She recommends a daily journal to record what a perfect future would look like, exploring your utopia from multiple perspectives (physical, emotional, spiritual, relational, financial and as a parent, or any other role you might have). “As you ponder that question, on a daily basis, it is going to open some doors for you that seem interesting,” she shares.

Ms. Pavlik also suggests looking through Frisco or Dallas meet-ups on meetup.com and filtering through groups that might be fun and add meaning for you. As you fill your time with more activities that fulfill your own needs, you can start letting go of previous responsibilities or mental states that might not fit anymore. “Remember, you have spent years getting your kids ready to fly on their own,” says Ms. Pavlik. “That is what you have worked for, and you have got to trust them, at this stage, to learn their way. Let them make little mistakes. Let them think through their problems. Let them grow.”

Along the way, Ms. Boudreau encourages parents to look for all the moments in life to be grateful for and to be patient. Using whatever model works best for you, identify and understand where you are. “Allow yourself to have the feelings you have without judging them,” she says. “Do not be harsh and critical of yourself right now because you are going through a big change. You have got to be good to yourself.” Ms. Boudreau recommends using Dr. Gloria Wilcox’s feelings wheel to identify your feelings, understand what you are afraid of and to look for ways to move to the positive side of the wheel. To do this, Ms. Boudreau suggests you start observing and catching the voices in your head. Do not judge, just watch. Then, after a while, start challenging, without judging, what you hear. Is it helpful or do you want to think differently? If so, then you can choose to abandon it and change it.

Ms. Peel stresses the importance of giving yourself time and space to really think, with intention. Clearly identify your “grounding beliefs, your calling, what quality of life you want and the legacy you aim for.” If you do not, you might become “a slave to someone else’s notions of what matters.” Similarly, make sure you are “measuring your life by a worthy metric. What really matters to you, or should?” To reach your goals, Ms. Peel recommends setting limits on anything that spends your time but does not invest it because today’s decisions will define your tomorrows. “If you have a pulse, you have a purpose. Your personal ‘Act II’ can be an immensely rewarding time when you connect with God’s grand plans and purposes for the rest of your life,” she says. “‘Act I’ still matters, and your value continues to accrue. All the wisdom and experience you have gained can continue to bear fruit.”

For Your Marriage

After years of parenting, spouses commonly find they have grown apart. To get to know each other again, Ms. Pavlik suggests that couples actively date, expand current relationships with other couples and find ways to make common tasks more exciting. She also recommends selecting a set of question cards from gottman.com, one of two research-proven marriage therapies, to guide rediscovery. Ms. Peel proposes coffee dates with your spouse to purposefully identify your culture, values and expectations to direct your decisions about time and money going forward. What matters most to your family and your marriage? What kind of parents, and grandparents, do you want to be?

Learn something new as a couple. Ms. Peel says, despite writing books on parenting, she and her husband are taking a parenting class together to understand the culture and challenges of their grandchildren’s upbringing.

Dr. Chafetz stresses the importance of communication. Be assertive, speak up, ask open-ended questions and listen, non-judgmentally, to give each other a chance to be heard. “When people can put into words what they are experiencing, that is therapeutic in itself,” says Dr. Chafetz.

Reflecting on the Journey

Ms. Peel recalls, “We knew our parenting was not over, because once you are a parent, you are always a parent. Your roles and responsibilities change. You become more of a mentor and a cheerleader. It is a new kind of a relationship, but it is a good thing.” Ms. Pavlik adds, “Perspective is everything. If you are going to look at it as a horrific, difficult time to go through, then that is what you are going to feel. If you are going to look at it as a brand new beginning and all the excitement you could ever want is ahead of you, then you are going to create that. This can be the best time you have had in years. Just enjoy it! You get to rewrite what you want to go on living for, and that is so much fun!”

As new empty-nesters, parents have the opportunity to reevaluate life goals and values. It is important to embrace the changes that accompany this new chapter of life so everyone in your family continues to grow together.

Amy Richmond is a writer who relishes faith, family, intriguing conversations and inspiring words. She wishes time could be saved in a bottle because one lifetime is not enough.