I will re-experience the empty nest when our grandson, Colin, leaves home for college next fall. When my nest first emptied, after my youngest daughter left for college, I was caught up in a whirlwind of my own leavings. I had just sold our family home, was finishing graduate school, and had just begun my first full-time job in over twenty-five years. I remember swallowing my tears whole as I brought the last carload of freshmen gear into my daughter’s dorm. I successfully ignored a wrenching as the loss of everyday motherhood tore me in two. It had been biting at my heels for three years as our life as a family tore itself apart in a divorce.
I can best describe my empty nest experience, then, as a decade of highs and lows and losses and triumphs. I learned to reinvent myself and I watched my daughters do the same. There were queasy, blinding moments of missing them terribly; after all, up to that point, motherhood had been my primary identity. Most of my energy had been spent on organizing them, praising them, teaching them, and cleaning up after them. Just when I thought I was finally moving on, waves of nostalgia reminded me that my daughters, my shining achievements, were beginning to live very own lives.
And yet, I happily fell into another nest when I remarried a decade later. My husband, Gerry was raising his then eight-year-old grandson. I found myself once more organizing summer camp schedules, arranging clothes in laundry baskets, writing constant reminders, and planning school break vacations to Disneyland. It all came back – like riding a bike – and I realized just how life-altering it can be, complete with the bumps, exhilaration, and bruises of the joyride.
I’d like to think that an empty next this second time around will be liberating. It should be especially so as a senior citizen with retirement on the horizon in the coming decade. I wonder, however, how Gerry will adjust because he has had at least one child, and up to four, living in his home for over forty years.
There are, of course, books written for empty nesters. Several of them focus positively on life for couples after parenthood such as Fun without Dick and Jane by Christie Mellor (2012). Mellor encourages parents to enjoy their newfound freedom while still urging their offspring to stay in touch (and even come home for the holidays.) Laughter and rediscovery are the two key messages here.
A more sobering book of advice by David and Claudia Arp is Fighting for Your Empty Nest Marriage (2000). The Arps believe that the second stage of your marriage begins when your children move on to adulthood. At that point there are new issues of handling conflict and dealing with an empty household but still having new kinds of fun keeping your relationship strong.
Not everyone is up for selling their home to “hit the highway”, but that is what David and Veronica James did when they abandoned the empty nest for an entirely new life. In Going Gypsy (2015), they recount their story of a new beginning of buying a used RV on eBay, and putting over 10,000 back road miles on it traveling across America. They rediscovered their marriage along the way and still managed to nurture their relationships with relatives, especially with their three children.
Parents are guided by books early – at the beginning of pregnancy through infancy through toddlerhood, and high school. There are books that help get your kids ready for college and others that help launch their successful lives such as Emptying the Nest by Brad Sachs, 2010. Therapist Wendy Aronsson’s book, Refeathering the Empty Nest (2014) explores the empty nest syndrome for both mothers and fathers. It connects the dots – those between children leaving home and becoming adults.
Most books on the subject are written for women. As mothers, we are the natural sufferers of the empty nest syndrome, particularly single mothers who find their lives suddenly silent. Holidays, especially, are either eerily quiet or confusingly chaotic.
In The Empty Nest, edited by Karen Stabiner (2007), thirty-one parents “tell the truth about relationships, love, and freedom after children fly the coop.” I remember a particularly harried day in my home with teenagers, backpacks, sleeping bags, Bagel Bites, and IGA root beer taking up every inch of space. It was a “Calgon, take me away” moment when I looked to the heavens and wished for the day when I would live alone. One essay in Stabiner’s book is titled “Careful what you wish for” and that message came back to haunt me time and time again.
Compiling the stories of over 101 empty nesters, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Empty Nesters (2008) includes stories about both poignant tales of yearning for grown children and humorous accounts of enduring their visits. Another book for single moms is Winging It by Catherine Goldhammer (2008). Rediscovering yourself at a time your children are discovering themselves is a unique experience.
There are many great blog writers on sites (such as those on Divorced Moms dot com and Grown and Flown dot com) who are sharing their stories of the empty nest, including those of single mothers. If you need help compiling a list of resources whether they are websites, blogs, journal articles, or books, please call the library and speak with an Adult Services or Reference librarian. We’ll be more than happy to help you navigate this changing moment in your life.