Knowing that I would soon be moving my only child to college, I tried to prepare myself for what I assumed would be the emotional upheaval of empty nest syndrome. The internet, however, had nothing but bad advice for me.
“Get a job!” I was told.
“Find a hobby!” they said.
“Get a life!” I thought, as I read.
A New Phase of Life
There seems to be some unspoken assumption that the main challenge of an empty nest is a sudden preponderance of time and no idea what to do with it. I have no doubt that for some people this is part of the process. But as a working parent whose time is filled to the brim, I have found this kind of advice to be both insulting and patently unhelpful.
For me, the challenge of having my child move out isn’t one of nothing to do.
It’s one of a completely different cycle of life starting—and all of the accompanying emotions.
While going off to college is a huge life change for our children, make sure that you’re allowing yourself the time and space you need to process as well. It’s a big deal for us parents, too!
Here is some real advice about how to embrace empty nest syndrome:
7 Tips for Empty Nesters
1. Feel the actual feelings.
We all have some idea of what we think we’re going to feel when the kids move out, but forget what you thought you’d feel: what do you actually feel, right now?
Is there excitement mixed in with the sadness? What about spaciousness in the emptiness? Is there fear, relief, annoyance, joy?
We’re not trying to change anything, just to notice what the reality of our experience really is. By noticing our feelings and really feeling them, we can welcome the richness of the entire experience.
Journaling could be helpful for this, but it doesn’t have to be formal. You can also just take a deep breath, close your eyes, and check in. Ask yourself: how do I feel right now?
2. Don’t fill the time and space.
Contrary to so much of the advice out there, we don’t need to immediately fill up any newly open time—or fill in any newly empty physical spaces. It’s okay to let things stay empty for a while. Sit with any new spaciousness that’s been created, and wait until you really feel like you are sure what you want to do with it before you rush to fill it back up.
3. Reconnect to you.
This is a natural time to check in with yourself.
- Is your life on a trajectory that still feels authentic to you?
- Are you taking care of yourself in the ways that you want to?
- Are you happy with how your other relationships are going, or do you want to make some changes?
- Is it a good time to ramp up your career, retire, or start a new one?
- Is there anything you have been putting off that is appropriate to pick up now?
A personal mission statement or a written list of goals or values can be a wonderful way to formalize this practice.
4. Connect with friends old and new.
For a lot of us, our friendships stem from either our children or our work. During this time in our lives, we have the opportunity to expand our social circles even further if we want to. This can be a time to actually take people up on their offer to grab a coffee or a drink, to try out joining that book club or running group. Or, if it feels right for you, to deepen our connections to existing friends we cherish.
5. Connect with other kids.
While your work as a parent might be done (or, let’s be honest, shifting gears), there are still a lot of parents out there with younger kids who would love to have your help. If you find yourself thinking wistfully about “when they were young,” open yourself up to connecting with other little ones in your life. Most parents would relish a break. Offer some help.
6. Write a letter.
Grab a pen and paper, and write your child a letter telling them your hopes and wishes for them at this new stage in their life. While they might be too busy to call or text regularly, they are not too busy to hear supportive words from those who love them most. Take that love you have for your kiddo and put it into writing.
7. Remember to breathe.
While it can be tempting to rush through our to-do list, push the emotions aside, and move quickly on to the next thing, don’t forget to breathe. When we find ourselves stressed out or rushing, taking a few deep, mindful breaths can bring us back to a place of experiencing this new time in our lives in all of its richness and complexity.
Transitions are hard for all of us. They bring uncertainty and newness. But if we can greet this complex time in our life with curiosity and warmth, we can use it as an opportunity for spaciousness, reflection, and reconnection.
May your empty nest be full of love!