The Empty Nest: What Is Life for Parents Like When The Kids Leave?

Empty nest syndrome is the feeling of grief that parents may feel when their kids leave the house to work or study.

6 min read
What is the empty nest syndrome? We speak to parents to understand.

You give them wings, you teach them how to fly, and when finally, they fly — you feel helpless, hopeless and empty.

That’s the paradox of parenting. Parents birth and nurture their children until they blossom into young, independent adults. If they succeed, the young independent adults leave the house in no time to study, work or marry — leaving them alone with a heart filled with pride, but a big void that they struggle to fill.

But this isn’t a sob story. It’s a journey of hope, unconditional love, and nostalgia that nearly all parents go through. In conversation with FIT, a few of them open up about the difficult times, and how they emerged stronger after.

“I Felt Underutilised”: Gita Parekh, Mother of Two

When Gita’s sons reached their teens, she felt like she was no longer required around them all the time. As a homemaker and a mother, she had spent years revolving her days around her children. When her younger son left the house to study further, she started feeling ‘empty’ and ‘underutilized’. “I was so used to doing stuff for them that nurturing had become a habit.”

“For the longest of time, my world was centered around my children. Even the friends you tend to make are usually mothers of your children’s friends. When the kids get busy and are not around, you feel like your identity as a mother has been snatched away. Here, the need to feel more than just a mother or homemaker kicks in.”
Gita Parekh, now a psychotherapist

Dr Kamna Chhibber, Clinical Psychologist and Head of the Mental Health Department at Fortis Healthcare, explains the phenomenon of the ‘empty nest’ — when parents experience loneliness and grief after their children leave. She says that for so many years, parents look after the wellbeing of their children and are involved in the decisions they make.

“This becomes a way of life. When the child goes away, you are suddenly expected to make peace with the fact that you won’t always know what they are doing, if they are making the right choices, and if they aren’t making any mistakes.”
Dr Kamna Chhibber

Letting go of this ‘control’ and coming to terms with the fact that your child has a journey of his/her own is a very big shift that a parent undergoes, she adds.

“My children were my world. But they aren’t around anymore.”
“My children were my world. But they aren’t around anymore.”
(Photo: iStockphoto)

FIT spoke to Ritika Aggarwal Mehta, Consultant Psychologist, Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre, who spoke of people who are more likely to feel the void. “For a parent who sees her/himself as a certain person’s mother or father — and nothing else — the effect could be much more, because the only role they had is suddenly gone. Then there are also parents who rely on their children for emotional support. Depending on the age, the void could be intensified by menopause, retirement, or even a spouse’s death.”

“I Feel Like a Part of Me Has Died”: Andy, Father of Three

Andy McCallum is currently a therapeutic counselor. After his divorce with his first wife, their three children stayed with him. When the youngest one left for University, he was ‘devastated’.

“The house was like a mortuary, cold and silent, the very life force of my children was gone — their noise, their smell, their laughter, everything. I loved it when they filled it with their friends and their nonsense. I really miss them. It’s a like a part of me has died.”
Andy McCallum

He shares a part of his diary entry, where he poured his heart out soon after seeing his son off.

I go to each of their bedrooms and smell their pillows. There's a sock under the bed. A piece of Lego by the chair. I can hear them like they are ghosts. Their laughter, crying when they're hurt, how their bodies feel when I hug them or tickle them. Who is looking after them now? Are they safe? Who will love and care for them like I do? My chest is tight, I can hardly breathe, something I loved so much has just stopped without warning. I'm listening, I can hear the house make tiny sounds. I didn't notice these when my children were here. It's so quiet. I want their shoes in the doorway, their friends making a ruckus, doors slamming, perfume and aftershave stinking out the bathroom. Stinging me for petrol money, telling me bad jokes, asking for a hug. I miss being able to love them as I used to for nearly 30 years. I just miss them.

Beyond a ‘Mother’ or ‘Father’: Finding a New You

For Gita and Andy, the need to create a new identity was overwhelming. Gita, for instance, started attending workshops to train herself in counseling when her children got busy. She had always had a natural inclination towards the field, but had never been able to find the time to work towards it. Today, she is a psychotherapist.

“You also have to be out in the world to understand all that, because till then you are so caught up in that whole web. Step out, learn new things, make friends. When your experiences and awareness increase, your outlook expands. You understand that you and you children, you all need your own space.”
Gita Parekh

For Andy, his immediate coping mechanism was spending extra hours at work and keeping himself busy. “Initially, I hated coming home to a dark and silent house. I worked late until my wife was already home, so that I could enter a warm and lighted house.”

Soon, he discovered that this new-found time that he had could be used to take up things he perhaps couldn’t have done earlier.

“I found a new me who read books again, stayed up late and did things I did when I was 18. It’s fun actually. A balance restores itself, but the pain of loss will always be there. Now when I see my kids, they are super happy and successful. I look at myself and say, I did a good job as a Dad, now what can I do for me/us?”
Andy McCallum

“But I thoroughly believe that I could only reach this phase after I had given myself enough time to feel sad and get through it”, he adds.

Enjoy the time that you now have for yourself.
Enjoy the time that you now have for yourself.
(Photo: iStockphoto)

Dr Kamna Chhibber and Ritika Aggarwal Mehta list down some ways to cope with this feeling of emptiness:

  1. Be aware from an early stage that this phase will come. Cultivate your social groups and relationships that can continue even after your child goes away.
  2. It is extremely crucial for parents to have something of their own. It could be their career, health or fitness, hobbies, art, writing, going out — absolutely anything.
  3. To prepare your child, start creating activities for them where they can work towards making decisions. Minimize your intrusion in things where it’s not necessarily required.
  4. In a lot of cases, the relationship between spouses is kept on the backfoot for years. Even the conversations tend to revolve around the children and what’s happening in their lives. So when they're suddenly gone, the marital couple finds itself in a fix. It’s important to indulge in couple activities or to make it a point to spend quality time with each other, even when the children are around.
  5. If you feel none of this is working, talk to a therapist — before or after the kids leave. A therapist could help you understand how parenthood is different from your identity as a person. You could also go for family sessions if you feel your children or spouse need it too.
  6. Most importantly, make it a point to acknowledge your feelings and to not treat them as ‘just a phase’. If not given enough attention, they could push you towards depressive symptoms. It’s important to proactively engage in self-care.

So while there may be things to miss and mourn, there’s probably a lot more to be happy and proud about. Make use of the ‘empty nest’ by placing yourself in it, and nurture and care for this new child like you did for all your previous ones!

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