The Empty Nest Syndrome (1)
By: Beth McHugh 2008
“Help me. I miss my little girl!”
This was the opening cry for help from the middle-aged female client who sat before me.
“How old is your little girl?” I inquired. The woman dabbed her eyes and looked at me and looked away. “She’s 21.”
This lady was in real distress. Her daughter had moved away to college and she was a SAHM of one, and her “one” had just flown the coup. She was profoundly sad. She had what is commonly known as the “empty nest syndrome.”
Though not a registered psychological condition, the empty nest syndrome is very real. It can be experienced by parents of either gender but is most common to mothers, who traditionally undertake the bulk of childrearing duties.
Although widespread, the feelings of sadness and emptiness are rarely spoken about. Thus the myth that all mothers readily release their children out into the world without the bat of a tear-laden eyelids is continued. It is only when you directly question older mothers and asked them how they coped with their children leaving home that the silence is broken. Often years-old pain comes to the fore.
It is assumed that women who finally wave the last offspring out the door immediately jump into the car for a round of golf followed by a bridge party that night. The next day is given over to enrolling at the local college for a degree in world economics. While women do have a lot more time on their hands once their role as child-rearer is over, there is often a distinct period of grieving. This period ranges from a few weeks to many months.
Mothers (and fathers) can be caught out in a sudden flow of tears merely by seeing an advertisement for a baby shop. The loss of their “missing” adult child can trigger off old memories of that child as a baby, a toddler or a teenager. The loss of that person who can never exist again can be source of intense grieving.
When the adult child still lived in the family home, thoughts of this nature are rare. It is when the adult child leaves that memories start to flood in. Suddenly the parent realizes that they have not only “lost” the resident in the back bedroom, but they can never recapture that special parent-child relationship they once shared with them.
Moving out of home requires the parent to slowly give up the parent-child role and adopt a new role – that of an equal peer-peer relationship. Although parents will always technically be parents, a successful relationship with one’s adult children demands separation, respect and healthy boundaries.
In the meantime, it is perfectly normal to grieve.
Next article in series.