The Empty Nest: Opportunity or Crisis? (Part 2)
It can be a crisis:
- If the kids have been the primary focus of your life. As important as it is to love our children and love the job of parenting, it’s also a stage of life, not the whole of it. Those who have thrown themselves into parenting to the exclusion of their own interests do sometimes find themselves wandering the empty house, feeling like their purpose in life has vanished. They aren’t wrong. Their purpose for those 18-plus years has reached an endpoint. Now it’s time to redefine the relationship with the child, the spouse if there is one, and with the self. It can be disorienting. If it hasn’t been prepared for, it can truly feel like a crisis of identity, purpose and meaning.Grieving the life stage and the loss of all the activity and daily emotional connection with multiple people having multiple needs can go on too long if there isn’t some thing and some people to take its place. If it lasts more than a month after the last child leaves home, it’s probably a good idea to see a counselor to help you through.
- If other parents on the bleachers were your only friends. It’s easy to think you have a busy social life when you are around people all the time due to children’s activities. But sharing a bleacher or carpool doesn’t necessarily mean that you are sharing a friendship. Many parents can’t find the time to develop real adult friendships when in the thick of parenting. When the children leave, they find themselves with few or even no meaningful and deep adult relationships.
- If the kids were a distraction from things going wrong with your relationship. Some couples bury themselves in work and children’s activities as a way to avoid dealing with the fact that they are growing apart. When the kids leave, they find themselves looking at each other and seeing a stranger. Left to themselves, all the little irritations and big disagreements that have been left unattended come into focus.Sometimes such couples can take a deep breath, have some very painful and yet productive conversations, and make the changes they need to make to face the next stage of life together. Sometimes they need the help and support of a couples counselor to know even where to begin. It’s always worth a shot. You’ve done the job of raising the kids together. Now it’s possible that you can rediscover the love and interest that brought you together in the first place.
- If you didn’t prepare the kids to be independent. Kids who were over-parented don’t want the parenting to stop. They want their parents to continue to monitor their homework, help them with their papers, bail them out when they overspend and bawl out the roommate they can’t stand. It may be tempting to participate and protect. But doing so will further impede their growing up and will prevent you from moving to the next stage of life.
- If you are depressed by the idea that you are no longer needed as an active parent. Needing to be needed in order to feel like you have a place in the world isn’t healthy. It means you are always dependent on having a “needy someone” to be your partner in the transaction. It’s time to find another way to relate to others and to feel good about yourself.
Opportunity or Crisis?
Parenting is a wonderful, joyful, frustrating, humbling and important stage of life. But once the intense time of getting the children to adulthood is over, it’s up to us to decide what we will do with the rest of life that is available to us. Certainly, staying in touch and relating to our children as adults should be part of the next stage. But our kids can’t continue to be the center of our lives if they are to be healthy adults with new families. It’s their turn to be partners and parents. It’s our turn to rediscover ourselves.
Whether this new life stage is an opportunity or crisis is up to us. One of the marvelous things about being human is that we can decide what we want to do next. Sometimes we have enough perspective and personal resources to do it on our own. If we’re in crisis, we may need to reach for some professional help to say goodbye to that chapter and hello to a new one. However it happens, it’s yet another chance to grow.