’empty nest’ without a syndrome?

A common term presides to describe our feelings when our child leaves home.  The go to  phrase ’empty nest syndrome’ falls readily from the sympathetic, knowing nod. It makes sense,  but does it fit for all?

A social descriptor, rather than a clinical diagnosis, ’empty nest syndrome’ is commonly associated with feelings of sadness, loneliness or emotional stress at finding oneself childless in the home, after 18 odd years of parenting.

While full force of ‘the syndrome’ is felt as the last child departs, it may also be felt (differently) when any child leaves, depending on the family dynamic.  (Think of a rising melancholy as you stare into their abandoned bedroom, regardless of two chaotic populated rooms on either side.)  Said child has probably gone away to Uni or college, or maybe just decided to go it alone with friends, or for their first job.

Empty nest syndrome is a useful term, normalising a sense of loss, a new lack of purpose maybe (the physicality of parenting removed after (lets say) 18 years of dependency).  A possible sense of loneliness with the day to day interactions now purely virtual, or diminishing.  And it may come in waves, or linger, or it may grow and turn into something disruptive (bringing marital or familial stress along for the ride).

Or it may not come at all.

In fact, despite a well embedded notion that it’s par for the course, research indicates not as many parents feel empty nest syndrome as we might think.

It depends how we’re wired, the quality of our relationship with the departing child,  and a bunch of non-related factors. Like what else is going on with life and the universe,  before, during and after.

Empty nest syndrome has been the go-to phrase for so long, that it unwittingly masks the complexity of the event, reducing it to a tick list of emotions.  While it’s real for some, it seems to reduce our language around the experience, and curtail our capacity to share the richness of our stories. It dominates the narrative, leaving quieter, sometimes less palatable stories unheard (and hence ‘not normal’). It pre-determines what the experience will be.  This profound human experience, this time in our lives,  needs to express itself through a far more (wildly) colourful palette!

Many embrace the empty nest. Without guilt or sorrow.  That is,  without the syndrome.  Some have longed for it. Some feel relief, a lightness of being. Free.  Some feel OK with feeling OK,  while others feel guilty about feeling OK.  To even contemplate such things may feel like a betrayal – to child, family, self.  A heinous truth, a guilty secret. (Let’s stick with ’empty nest syndrome’. Easier!)

This experience, the emptying of the nest, is not just one of learning to fill time and let go.  Of understanding the relationship is growing into something new and different now.  It is the start of understanding more of ourselves and the way we feel and respond and cope and love.  It forces reflection on the 18 odd years before, and the choices we made, which may influence future choices (especially around our other children still wing side).

The real stories are many, and the tip of deep icebergs that talk to the core of ourselves, our values, our choices. And they help shape the next chapter of life as it inevitably moves on its way.

What’s your story?

(You can share your experience here, if you haven’t been able to before.  It’s anonymous.)

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