Navigating the Empty Nest with Dr. Steve

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Navigating the Empty Nest with Dr. Steve

When children grow up and leave the home, the parents experience an emotional ripple effect. While some parents admit to both anticipating and dreading the moment when the house is all theirs, certainly, life is never the same again. Many grieve. Some fall into a depression. Others take stock of their lives and yearn for a new direction—a new beginning. Some couples get closer, while others become even more distant. It’s a hard time, as most times of change typically are. For advice to help those suffering during this time, or for those anticipating an empty nest, I turned to Stephen W. Simpson, PhD, a psychologist specializing in relationships and sexuality who practices in Pasadena, California.  Here is what he had to say:

Laura: Some women confess having overwhelming feelings of loss and grief when their children leave home. In fact, one woman admitted to having a harder time dealing with all the children out of the house than when one of her children died. Why do you think that is?

Dr. Steve: In one sense, it is losing a child. When children leave home, they’re usually transitioning into being self-sufficient adults. They’re leaving the child role. Thus, a woman is not just losing her child, but also her identity as a mother. It’s as if part of who she is vanishes. Yes, not being around her children is part of it, but not as much as you might think. By the time they’re ready to leave, most kids aren’t hanging around that much anyway. But a woman loses a big part of her role as a mother when children leave. Now she has to figure out who she is again and what role she plays in her adult children’s lives.  

Laura: Some empty-nesters say the first year is brutal and report crying at the oddest times: during parties, at a store, or at a friend’s house. Is this normal? When should women be concerned that how they are reacting or feeling is a sign of a more severe form of depression?

Dr. Steve: These symptoms are not only normal, they’re somewhat healthy. It is evidence of a strong bond between mother and child, and it should be hard to deal with such a big life change. However, the empty-nest syndrome can bring up other feelings of loss and questions about meaning, value and identity that can lead to a more serious depression. If a woman finds herself feeling sad most of the time or unable to function in work or relationships, then she’s passed from appropriate mourning into depression. 

Laura: Is it normal to be depressed after the children have been gone for over a year?

Dr. Steve: Depressed, as in clinically? No, it’s not normal. Feelings of sadness are normal, but they should become less frequent and intense toward the end of the year. But it is normal for the first couple of months to be especially difficult. 

Laura: Would it be helpful to have a plan before your children leave to help keep busy: start a new career, hobby, class?

Dr. Steve: Yes and no. It’s important for moms (and dads) to “reinvent” their lives a bit. They need to develop new interests and places to put their energy. However, it won’t remove all feelings of loss, nor should it. As I said, it’s healthy to mourn a little bit. 

Laura: If one spouse is not as affected as the other after a year or longer, would you recommend that they both go to counseling together or just the one who is more depressed?

Dr. Steve: Generally, there is one who is more depressed. However, if part of the depression results from marital conflict, they should go together. Ideally, they would do both individual and couples counseling.

Laura: How common is it for women to suddenly have fears spiral out of control during this period? While some women say they just missed their children and grieved, others say they began to fear that their relationship with their husbands would fail, that they dreamed of dying and were suddenly more aware of any physical limitations. Is this a common reaction? When should a woman be concerned?

Dr. Steve: This is common, but the key is (monitoring) how bad things get. The empty-nest represents a major developmental transition, just like adolescence. It’s a tangible signal that someone has moved out of middle-age into later-life. A huge life task, raising children, has been completed and has left behind a vacuum. This can leave a woman wondering about her worth, identity and the meaning of her life. The dream of dying is symbolic—her previous identity is gone. The awareness of physical limitations represents a fear of growing old and death. 

A woman should be concerned when she goes beyond sadness into depression or chronic anxiety. She should give herself time to mourn the loss of both her “baby,” who’s now an adult, and also part of her identity as a mother. However, if she fails to transition into a new identity, finding new goals and passions, it’s a problem. Therapy, support groups or just finding friends going through the same thing can help tremendously. 

Laura: Do you have any advice for the couple that is having a hard time adjusting to so much more time together alone?

Dr. Steve: One of the main tasks for empty-nesters is returning to a “dyad” (married couple) after years in a family system. The couple has lost one of their major bonds—parenting together. This is a time to rediscover their relationship and, ideally, reinvigorate it with common goals, romance and increased physical intimacy. The couple will have to adjust to spending more time together. Finally, some couples can take out their feelings of grief on each other. In the worst case, the kids were the only thing holding the marriage together. In this situation, the children leaving can result in a crisis leading to divorce. Such couples definitely need counseling.