• David Unger, PhD

The Empty Nest



Recently I was asked to speak to a group of parents who are in the midst of having a child go off to college. On the one hand all these parents have put great effort into supporting their children as they made their way through nursery, elementary, middle and high school. All to help them move on to their next bit of schooling. After which comes making it in the real world.


These parents have sent their children to a private school in belief that the education they receive will best prepare them for life in college and beyond. So even though a lot of effort has gone in to “getting your child into college,” and even though great celebrations occurred when their child was accepted at one of those preferred schools, having your child leave home does not often prompt revelry. It usually prompts great sadness. Whether your child is moving out to get a job, live in another place or enroll at a college having them leave home is often very challenging.


Here is a child you have raised for seventeen or eighteen years, you have lived with them, seen the best and worst of them and come to love them in a way you have never loved before. Here is the child you love probably more than any other or at least they are right up the final grouping. And, now that child moves away from you and begins to live their life away from you. There is more “away” there than most parents would like. Yet at the same time they often encourage their child to go to a school far away so the child can learn to take care of themselves and come to know their own independence and responsibility.


The oversight, the responsibility, the caring for and keeping an eye out all diminish. Bit by bit, year by year your child grows away from you. And becomes their own person. Just like you did.


But it was different when you moving out. We each have our own story about moving out of our parent’s home and making our way in the world. For some it was easy, for others less so. For some it was relief, for others an escape and for others it was just what you did and you didn’t really think about it.


You are much more aware of your child moving out than you were of you moving out. In part because it is happening now and you are generally more aware than you were then. In part also because it is the march of time. Back when we were of college age life was in front of us, a family of our own was in front of us. Now we have moved along in our lives and are much more aware of the passage of time and what is behind us as well as what lies ahead.


Having your child move away is a loss. Sure it is a gain too. Of more time, more freedom, and more energy spent searching for meaningful activity to fill the void. The absence of your child's presence takes away one of life’s great pleasures - being with you family. Although truth be told as most children go through high school many of their interactions are not so enjoyable and not so frequent. There is less time spent together, fewer meals shared and weekend nights together become the rare exception.


There is a concept in Psychology called Systematic Desensitization. I talk about it in one of the parent videos. Step by step a person can take themselves from point A to point B. So, for instance, if you are scared of flying you could see a therapist and they would help you design a regiment that starts with baby steps and ends when you are comfortable with flying. You systematically desensitize yourself to something that scares you so eventually you can deal with it. Behavioral Therapists are pretty successful at this. And so is nature.


Nature makes it so that you raise your child from the place where you are completely responsible for making sure they eat and drink to the place where they rarely do that with you. Step by step you get to that place. Yet that day when you take them to college, help them settle into their room and wait for them to tell you to leave is one of the worst moments in many a parent’s life.


You need to cheer them on while your heart brakes. You want to find that encouraging smile while your tears want to flow down your face. Every parent has their own story and version of this, but no matter how you said goodbye, it basically sucked. Sucked a bit of your life away from you that you would never get back.


Off they go to college and from there to life out in the world doing who knows what, earning who knows what, hanging out with who knows who, living who knows where and seeing you who knows how often.


So you can see why this is a difficult time. A time to be sad. Be lonely. And miss your child. You have been missing them pretty much since the day they arrived. When they cry out in the night when they are infant, you miss the nights you could sleep when they were in the womb. When they start to talk you miss the mumbling. When they turn six you miss five. Thirteen you miss twelve.


We love watching our children grow up while at the same time we wouldn’t mind freezing some moments and just living in them. Would that we could. It is just like when you find a great book and you can’t put it down but you don’t want it to finish so soon.


This is a time of sadness. It is important to honor that sadness as it is a testament to the love you share. But you can only be actively sad so long. Being an adult, you have to suck it up and get back into life. You only have so much of it left. You don’t want to spend it all mopping around. Just some of it.


There is no right amount of time to be sad. Although I imagine for most parents there is a lasting sadness that your child no longer is your adorable innocent baby. You just hope you can contain the sadness in some way so that you actively feel it now and then and allow yourself to be with it and then get on with your life. This the time of your life to move into another stage. A somewhat less full stage family-wise, but a stage nonetheless. A stage that is best managed by focusing on what really makes you happy and investing more time and energy into it. If you are going to lose a love you might as well try to develop others. They won’t be the same, but it will help. And, you know, as much as you are losing your little boy or girl you do have a life-long relationship with them that will include many emotional highlights. And lowlights. Hopefully the one far outweighs the other.


You are going to be building a new relationship with your life and with your child’s life. Like any new relationships there will be bumps in the road, emotion on the way and opportunity to make it the very best you can.Yet many parents find the years after their child moves out to be among their most enjoyable. Maybe not right away, but usually not that far down the road.


Life is not easy and as we have heard getting old is not for sissies. But, for now, we have life, and given a choice, it is better to do our best to enjoy it and make it meaningful and worthwhile.


Good luck

#emptynest #movingout #relationships

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