How to prevent or eliminate the ENS blues with five easy steps.
Your last child is leaving home. You feel blue. Sure, you still have work and even though that’s rewarding, there is still this malaise that you can’t escape. You’re the proud mother of a college student at last! You have free time now to do things you’ve always wanted to do. So why doesn’t it feel as great as you thought it would?
Empty nest syndrome is a common term for the situation mothers find themselves in when their last child leaves home. Empty nest syndrome can affect fathers too but is most often associated with mothers. The societal nickname “empty nest” refers technically to the lack of children in the home and conceptually to the lack of busy-ness that goes with raising children. Children most often become the focal point of the household from the moment the parents know they are pregnant through to the point that the children leave home. This is close to two full decades and can be longer depending on the number of children, the number of years between births and the number of years post high school it takes the kids to move out. Following the birth of the first child, the parents’ day becomes a coordinated system of caring for the child(ren): getting them up in the morning, going to and from school, after-school activities, preparing meals and getting ready for bed again. Every mother will tell you this is a full time job and many have other full time jobs that pay the bills and provide for the support of the family. During these child rearing years, mothers spend most of their free time in this system of coordination of family and child-centered activities as well as planning and coordinating new activities.
By the time all the children in the house are in their teenage years and have hopefully reached a level of independence with daily self-care and homework, moms can and should begin to take a step back from this massive coordination of the last 15 years or so. Many times this transition occurs naturally and happily as the parents allow their teenagers to have increasing autonomy with support. Occasionally, however, this becomes a difficult transition that is fraught with marital distress and dissatisfaction, anxiety and exertion of inappropriate increases in control over the lives of the children rather than stepping back. This can create rebelliousness on the part of the teenagers and a general distrust between the parents and children.
There has not been a plethora of psychological research on empty nest syndrome, its underlying causes or its co-morbidity with other issues such as serious illness, menopause, and illness/death of a parent that can be co-occurring at this time in the mother’s life. Emphasis instead has been on the treatment of the symptoms, which are primarily chronic anxiety and depression. Existing research by Oliver1 in a journal article on empty nest syndrome, does, however, suggest that post-mothering conflict (the psychological term for empty nest syndrome) is less related to the emptiness of the house as the popular term suggests and more directly related to the mother’s loss of power. Oliver suggests that this loss of power and control results from a “discontinuation of a defining and ‘natural’ role” – a role in which the mother controlled the lives of other human beings- “a role which the over-involved mother is unable to relinquish”. In addition to the diminishing of a role that dominated the mother’s existence for nearly two decades or longer and provided her with feelings of significance, the mother has to reconfigure her relationship with her significant other whether it is with the children’s father, a different partner or a partner who has not yet arrived in her life. Even in marriages where both parents of the children are together, the parents have to learn to become a couple again and to focus on their relationship beyond the demands of the children for whom they care. And, the last time the mother focused on herself or her relationship primarily, she may have been a different person with different interests, needs and wants. She was definitely at a different stage in the life cycle.
There is good news, however! Empty nest is something for which planning and preparation can minimize or eliminate the symptoms for even the most-involved mother. Healthy parenting involves scaffolding or providing your children with guidance and support and allowing children to develop autonomy and self-esteem beginning as young as the first year when a child begins to walk and will explore further and further from mommy and then return to her as a stable base and sense of security. This continues throughout development and peaks in teenage years as the onset of adolescence encourages children to make decisions and more fully take charge of their lives. As this process begins, scaffolding requires less physical time, which allows the mother to rediscover herself and her own interests. In short, as the child needs less, the mother can focus on her own needs and interests that have taken a back seat for so many years. Ideally, you gradually add in activities and self-discovery while still caring for your children. Even if you didn’t these steps will help.
5 steps to avoid or eliminate empty nest syndrome:
1. Develop friendships. You are now beginning to have more time to spend with friends. You may spend more time with existing close friends. Join organizations or participate in events where you have common interests with others to foster the development of new friendships. Ideally, have multiple sets of close friends. This increases your support base and also increases the likelihood that you will have friends available when you want to keep busy.
2. Find new ways to feel significant without relying on anyone else. This could be the perfect time to finish a college degree or pursue a new one. You can’t overly focus on your college students’ grades and deadlines if you have your own to worry about! This could also entail changing jobs or careers, training for and running a 5k or a marathon, taking up a new sport or hobby. It could involve completing projects that have been on the back burner for a while. This needs to be planned. The way in which we feel significant is very individual. Set a goal, pick a deadline, choose your support team, and create a step by step plan to get you to your goal on or before your deadline. Do something you never dreamed you could do. Then do another.
3. Exercise. Exercise not only has health benefits in terms of helping you be fit at a time when metabolism slows down and you lose muscle tone and bone density, it also helps you have more energy and literally makes you happier. Exercise releases endorphins, dopamine and other brain chemicals that literally make you happier and make depression from life events less likely. You don’t have to do excessive exercise but do regular exercise to keep the release of brain chemicals flowing continuously. And best of all, you can feel the invigorating results almost instantly following your workout and there are no negative side effects.
4. Create the life you want to have. You now have more time to think about what will make you feel happier and more fulfilled and it may not be what you thought it was when you were younger. Take time to get to know who you are now. Read, meditate, be still, journal, and maybe even enlist your support team or a professional coach to help you uncover important details about who you are and what is really important to you. Then decide what you will do to transition into whom and what you really want. Take one step today. And then another tomorrow. Action inspires more action. And the universe will return with appropriate and rewarding reactions.
5. Express gratitude. Sonia Lyubomirsky2, a well-known positive psychologist, has actually conducted research with experimental and control groups on the effects of expressing gratitude and documents these astonishing results in her book The How of Happiness. Expressing gratitude works. Participants in the experimental group that documented things for which they are grateful reported being significantly happier following the experiment than the control group that did no such documentation. At its root elements, documenting gratitude in writing forces you to acknowledge that there are good things in your life. You can’t think everything is bad while you’re focusing on the good.
1. Oliver, R. The “empty nest syndrome” as a focus of depression: a cognitive treatment model, based on rational emotive therapy. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 14, 87-94.
2. Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The How of Happiness. New York: The Penguin Press.
About the author
Lisa is a writer, blogger, life coach, entrepreneur, owner of Small Steps 2 Big Change (www.smallsteps2bigchange.com), author of "Midlife Uncrisis-How to Turn Crisis into Positive Change" and a certified Strategic Intervention coach.
You can find Lisa's work on Huffington Post in addition to writing regularly for Smart Healthy Women magazine.
y you would like to share please contact Ms. Zawistowski at smallsteps2bigchange.com.