Is Your Nest About to be Empty?

By Abbie Pumarejo 2021-06-15 16:59:44

No worries you can have fun without the kids around!

empty nester • noun informal • north american

A parent whose children have grown up and left home.

Yep, that’s me. Mum of three grown men making their way in the world. Our sons are now 24, 22 and 20. Our last pollito (little chicken) flew away in 2019. We are in Europe and all three sons are living in the US. The distance can feel gaping and suffocating all at once, if I let it get to me.

In hindsight, I admit that my anticipation of the negative feelings produced more anxiety than the actual event itself. Yes, we both felt a big hole the first weekend we were alone and no boys were left in the house, but I think because we’d been saying goodbye/good luck to them since our first left for college in 2015 we had kind of gotten the hang of it.

The truth is, we tend to fear what we don’t know.

I do know I spent so many years being the centre of my sons’ world. It really can feel off balance when you finally send them out and let them have a go on their own. I was lucky to have a variety of friends over the years who could show me how it was done and who led by example. That made our transition smoother. And I did something with each boy that I would like to share with y’all-I imagined what it felt like to be in their shoes at such a pivotal time in their life. 

Do you remember what that feels like to be 18 and starting college? That is a good place to start as a parent. Try to put aside for a moment all of your own worries and anxiety.

Do you remember the sheer excitement, anticipation, and nervous curiosity? So many emotions for all involved. I did tell each son, without a lot of fanfare, “You might feel homesick. You might not feel so great every single day. But don’t give up. You now get to find who you are and who your people are. And we are always here for you.”



My eldest said something that has stuck with me, “In college you can be more yourself. You don’t have the pressures of high school that demand you to be, dress or act a certain way. There is more freedom.” And though there definitely is more freedom from parents, rules and regulations, there is an exchange that takes place. We emphasised to all three sons, “We highly recommended you go to class. Even if the teachers don’t check attendance. This is your new job, being a full-time student and soaking up all you can in these next four years. Don’t squander it or waste our money.”

Your son or daughter will now be responsible to get themselves out of bed, choose what and when to have breakfast, determine their schedule and even whether to go class or not. They will choose who to spend time with, when to study and whether they like a professor or class or not. They will struggle with life skills (laundry, cooking, cleaning and mediating with a new roommate). All without you looking over their shoulders and supervising every step. Maybe that is where the anxiety and emptiness for many parents comes from when we talk about “Empty Nest Syndrome.”

In the past, research suggested that parents dealing with Empty Nest Syndrome experienced a profound sense of loss that might make them vulnerable to depression, alcoholism, identity crisis and marital conflicts, according to a report from the Mayo Clinic. But I am here to tell you it doesn’t have to be negative, a condition or an illness to be cured. That isn’t to say you won’t have feelings of loneliness, sadness or miss them once they leave home. 

The Mayo Clinic also revealed that more recent studies suggest an empty nest might reduce family and work conflicts and can provide parents with many other benefits. When the last child leaves home, parents have a new opportunity to reconnect with each other, improve the quality of their marriage and rekindle interests for which they previously had no time. 



So, let’s talk about some things you can do to focus less on the empty part of your nest and more on fulfilling your time now that the kids are off to college. These are all things we have done personally as well as some great advice from friends I relied on when my kids first started going off to college:

• Reconnect with your spouse: take walks and bike rides, go on dates again and don’t talk about the children.

• Find a hobby that you never had time for.

• Go back to school: further your education, take a course in a new subject or something you’ve always dreamed of taking.

• Start a new exercise routine or take up a new sport.

• Read whatever you like, whenever you like.

• Travel, spontaneously!

Those all worked for us, and we are still exploring. We have learned a thing or two about ourselves and our kids in these last two years. Becky Scott, MSW and lecturer at Baylor University in the US offers these four tips for parents who could be having a hard time with a nest less full: 

1. Understand there is no correct way to cope. Parents need to get used to their new role and understand it is a process. 

2. Embrace communication. Set up with your spouse and kids the means and frequency of keeping in touch (see my rules below) as well as how you might begin to fill your time.

3. Address and resolve conflicts immediately. As Scott states, “The conflict or hurt that may emerge during launching your adult children is almost always not new conflict, but that which is brought to the surface by change. Take time to resolve it and address it.”

4. Find the balance between supporting your children and letting them learn on their own. This is an interdependency between family, support structure at college and their new emerging friendships.

There is prevalent advice out there for families with students about to head off to college. Each family is different, though, so your family culture will guide you as you prepare your fledgling to fly. Take into account the type of college and area of study. I feel one of the most important things to remember (for you and your student) is that there will be ups and downs. For some people, high school feels like the best time of their lives. And if they’ve been the big fish in a small pond, transitioning to college can be overwhelming. But, if parents give their kids some space, respect the fact they are capable to go off on their own (that’s what the last 18 years have been a dress rehearsal for, haven’t they?), then things will be fine.

I joined a parent group for families of incoming freshman when my last son went off to college. It was quite helpful to offer advice on practical information such as move-in and dorm rooms, certain class and professor information as well as where to shop and get food in the town where the university is located. This can help parents feel like they have a finger on the pulse of what is happening but without interrogating or grilling their student about every tiny detail each time they speak.



Which brings me to my next point. When the time comes for your child to head out of the nest, it’s perfectly reasonable to set some ground rules. Here are some of ours: 

• We need to talk at least once a week with a video call (so I can see you and how you are really doing).

• Please answer via text the same day if I send you a message. (We set up a family group chat, and my sons have their own brother chat).

• Make good decisions which includes staying away from illegal activities.

• Join a sport/club/study group. 

• Get to know your teachers and don’t be afraid to ask questions or for help. 

• Study and take your classes seriously. 

• Don’t forget to have fun!

If you are able to show you can move forward, that your world hasn’t crumbled because your children aren’t at home, you’re giving your kids the best gift. They look to you as an example, and will come back to you as ever evolving, maturing and growing people. Take comfort in the fact you’ve done a fantastic job with this major life transition. Oh, and don’t forget to have fun! 

You are now transitioning into a new phase. And as one former colleague who has younger children pointed out, “Must be a good feeling, seeing them spread their wings and not plummet, or head straight home to the nest again. Good job both of you, hope you enjoy a well-earned momentary peace before they start filling the house with grandchildren!”