What to Do When the Nest is Suddenly Empty

Medical Post
Helping Hand Column, November 6, 2007

It can be emotionally challenging when a child moves away. Here’s how to let go, find support and embrace this new phase in life

Thanksgiving weekend is over, and I find myself sending my son back to university with pride mingled with sadness after his first visit home. I know I am in good company. Most of our friends and colleagues with children of similar age are all at this stage. I recall the days when we spoke about finishing med school or residencies so we could start a family. Now the kids are moving away. How did we get here so fast?

I recall the boys as babies, staying awake nights with them, helping them settle back to sleep while sacrificing my own sleep and dreaming of where else I could be and what else I could be doing. A weekend, actually a day, or even just an hour to myself would have been welcome. Going to the office was a break: I could actually eat lunch in peace, or go to the bathroom by myself. I recall laughing with an older colleague who told me to enjoy this, as the “empty-nest syndrome” was tough for him and his wife. Yeah sure, I’d miss the long nights with the kids waking up with wet diapers, lost soothers, or for no apparent reason; or the twins graciously offering their colic in stereo.

Over the years, I continued the dreams of time to myself—no last-minute homework projects that had me rushing out for poster board at 8:55 p.m.; no complaints about dirty dishes or socks in the family room or towels on the floor; no soccer practices or music lessons.

Then, this past January, my eldest son applied to university. I was proud and excited for him, and tried to help in whatever way I could. I listened to him debating one program over another, listened as he read aloud the drafts of his “personal statements” wherein he tried to express his interest and desire for the programs. I helped him prepare for interviews in other cities and drove him there and back. In April, he heard he was accepted to his top choice in Toronto, and the planning began. I started to keep a list of all that he would need(I am happy to share this 87-item list and have it available to any of you as a Word document!)and spent the summer acquiring these items when I was able to leave the office early. That these things all fit into a van, and into his dorm room, remains a miracle. I left him there, sorting out the details of his class schedule, textbook list, meal plan and Frosh Week. I kept too busy to be sentimental or to be aware of how much I would miss him.

In fact, I can now see he has been thoughtfully preparing me for this for a few years. In high school, he began to make new friends whose parents I had never met, went out on weekends, started to drive, got a bank debit card and was becoming more independent and taking on more responsibility. At the end of the summer, he taught me how to use MSN Messenger albeit briefly so we could connect regularly while he was away. Interestingly, it seems that just as things were starting to get better, it was time for him to go.

The empty-nest syndrome is not an actual psychiatric diagnosis. It refers to the general feeling of loneliness that a parent or guardian feels when one or more children leave the home, no longer live with them and/or don’t need day-to-day care. It is most common in the autumn, when children leave for university or after a child gets married. It is natural, even necessary, for a parent to feel a sense of sadness. A colleague of mine once told me what his mother said to him: “The day the last one of you kids left the house was the happiest day of my life . . . the next day was the saddest.”

Issues of loss
More troubling reactions can occur, however. If a parent feels extreme sadness or loneliness, feels their useful life has ended, cries excessively or no longer wants to go out or go to work—and this lasts longer than a week or two—professional help is indicated. The departure has likely tapped into other issues of loss and precipitated depression.

I have found some tips to help me in this transition.

• Remember that we have successfully managed many other transitions in the past: university, med school, residency, setting up practice. We can do this one, too.

• Keep in mind that our child is taking an important step in their life; this is not about us. They are passing through Ericson’s stage of separation and individuation and are doing so successfully.

• Ration your phone calls to twice a week. It is OK if they call you more often. Try to set aside a regular time to call, so you can both fit it into your schedules.

• Try to text or e-mail them; it is easier for them to reply on their own time, and it may be easier to communicate feelings with less emotion. Funny, light notes about what is going on at home work well.

• If they are not happy there, try not to be too happy. Encourage them to keep trying, reassure them and support them to continue.

• If they need something, try to walk them through how to do/get it, not do it for them. We are there to support them, not to smother them.

• Talk to your friends, especially those who have gone or are going through a similar process. They are a huge source of support and advice.

• Ask yourself “What’s good about this?” and plan to take advantage of that benefit. For example, use the time gained from not having to drive them places to start your regular exercise program or enjoy the extra bedroom to invite out-of-town friends to visit.

• Identify things that you have always wanted to do and start now. This is a great time for new activities or interests outside medicine.

• Do not stay at work longer just because you may not have kids at home who need you to come home. Leave the office or hospital as before and find new, fun things to do without kids.

While I do miss my son, and know that it is never easy to let go, I know it is the right thing to do and that he is ready for it. The journey “from cradle to college” has been complicated, perplexing, fulfilling and satisfying. I remember an e-mail he sent to me after a couple of weeks of classes: “I love it here. I feel I am in exactly the right place for this stage in my life.” What a wonderful thing for a parent to hear! I look forward to the next stage in this journey, where I get to enjoy my relationship with the amazing young adult he has become.

Mamta Gautam is an Ottawa psychiatrist who specializes in treating physician patients. If you have a question you would like addressed in this column, please contact Dr. Gautam at mgautam@rogers.com. Please include “Helping Hand” in the subject line. All inquiries will be confidential. Your questions will not be replied to, but may be selected to be answered in this column, which is intended to be educational, not therapeutic.