Ever since the phrase “empty nest” was first coined in the 1970s to describe the long-married couple facing an empty household after their children have flown the coop, the term has become a full-blown syndrome. Until recently, empty nesters were assumed to be depressed, lost souls wandering in the wilderness searching for a new purpose in life.
Now, however, the phenomena is much more diverse and includes single, separated or divorced, and married parents. A survey cited in a recent Daily Mail article found one in seven women are happier once their children leave home. Instead of a lonely recluse, today’s midlife women are becoming “HENs” (Happy Empty Nesters.)
The men are happy, too. A 2009 New York Times summary countered the assumption that long-married couples discover they no longer have anything in common. Instead, the recent studies show marital satisfaction increases after the children are gone. One of the researchers at Berkeley, Dr. Gorchoff, stated, “It wasn’t that they spent more time with each other after the children moved out. It’s the quality of time they spent with each other that improved.” She continued, “Kids aren’t ruining parents’ lives, … they’re making it more difficult to have enjoyable interactions together.”
The women spotlighted in the Daily Mail piece ranged from a stay-at-home mom who rediscovered her relationship with her husband (including her libido) to another who separated because they realized they’d both grown apart. Another single mother entered a romantic relationship that keeps her out of the house more than in. The common thread among these diverse women was their deep emotional bond with their children and an initial dread when each child made their departure. While the adjustment was harder for some, each managed to find a way to love life again. A few excerpts:
“It was like dating someone whom you knew you loved once but hadn’t seen for some time…. recognising [sic] that you’d shared a past but, even more importantly, were going to share a future…. I feel younger, more relaxed and playful since my children left home.”
Another woman’s experience reminds us how important it is to take care of ourselves.
“We were great parents, but we’d lost our way as a couple. I tried to plan ahead. But nothing could have prepared me for the emptiness I felt when Beatrice left home in 2011. I had put everything into my family and now it was falling apart.… It’s only now, four years later, that I can see light at the end of the tunnel.”
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
I’m in the midst of this—excited and anxious that our daughter is leaving for her first year of college in a few months. Her graduation and the college selection process brought my husband and I closer than in recent years. We’ve enjoyed reliving our college experiences while we both celebrated and commiserated about how our daughter approached the college selection process.
We’re not complete empty nesters, yet. We still have a surly 15-year-old boy living with us. While he takes significant amounts of our time and emotional energy, I hope we will have more time to spend together as a couple. We’ve talked about how we’d like to celebrate our 30th anniversary next summer, but not about how different our day-to-day lives are going to be when we are not trying to juggle schedules and resources to keep up with our daughter’s daily needs.
In anticipation, I’m watching and talking with my friends who are a few steps ahead of me. One friend, who, like me, is married to a sports fanatic, makes sure she is gone a lot. She works full-time and frequently travels with another girlfriend. Another couple, who told us their daughter’s departure (an only child) was harder on the dad than the mother, travel together almost constantly. Sometimes their daughter is included, sometimes not. Both are very happy.
From afar, it looks and sounds great. Still, the practical side of me keeps coming back to the daily routine. Below is a summary of some of my favorite pieces of advice from various sources, including Dr. Terry Orbuch at Huffington Post and www.twoofus.org.
• 10-minute daily talks, not about money, household items, work
• Try new things together
• View this time as another phase in the relationship, just as you did when you became parents.
• Date again and bring back romance – on your own new terms. Return to talk again.
• Relax from the full schedule you’ve been keeping and enjoy each other’s company.
• Refrain from taking on large projects or making big decisions.
After 18 years of being responsible and making decisions, relax and refrain sound good to me.
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