The empty nest

By Dr. Batya L. Ludman, Psy.D., FT · Published September 5, 2012

After 33 years of marriage we had our first “bayit rek,” as our kids would refer to an empty home. Not that we left them home alone, but rather they all seemed to have left us. We didn't know this when we had invited several other couples for Shabbat dinner but they kindly helped us deal with our otherwise very quiet house. They also politely asked for our kids and sincerely appeared to miss them. Truth be told-so did we- for at least a short while. Imagine having no children's heads to put our hands on and bless. Shabbat lunch came around and it was just hubby and I - how weird that was; but quiet, the chance to reconnect and even relax over a leisurely lunch is not so bad! Sans kids will soon become a new phase in our lives. While somewhat sad in that you can't turn the clock back and relive many of those happy years of childhood, it is indeed wonderful to see your children test out their values, skills and independence as they head off to the army, sherut leumi, university or travel. You may not agree with all of their choices, and giving them space to grow isn't always easy as you struggle with the loss of being needed, but it is actually exciting to see how they arrive at their decisions. When your kids leave the nest, both they and you have adjustments to make.

When children prepare to leave home, the parent-child relationship changes. You may question whether they are ready to be on their own, and whether you are ready to let them go. Nevertheless, once no one is at home, your identity gets redefined and your relationship with your partner and all your children changes. This adjustment may take longer and be more stressful than anticipated. You may feel sad, lonely, alone, scared, concerned, anxious, and more, as you and your partner navigate an unknown future. If you're dealing with other losses at the same time, such as coping with aging parents, medical or job related issues, your child's leaving may seem more difficult. Men and women each experience a child's departure differently which in itself may exacerbate issues. Sometimes a child has been a major help at home or served to keep a couple together, and the dynamics between each parent and child, and between the parents will now change as well.

So how do you make the departure easier? Here are a few thoughts.

  1. Recognize that your role is changing. Be there to offer support - but as a consultant not a manager. Stay in the background. You have taught them to become more independent. Now they need the opportunity to try it out. Remember they need to find out who they are and how they fit in. This takes time. As they grow, they will make mistakes.
  2. Stay connected but give them space and privacy. Don't call them all the time or be available 24/7. Your challenge will be to figure out how to be helpful while not being overly intrusive. As they learn to solve their own issues and make their own decisions, they will feel increasingly more confident and this means that they will need you less. This is a good thing even though it may not feel like it!
  3. Let them know that they are always welcome home. While tempting to redo their room as soon as they have packed their last bag, perhaps together you can sort through and get rid of old stuff. Kids need to know that their home is still their castle and is warm, safe and there for them. Unless you have to, be gentle and don't rush. Your child shouldn't have to deal with too many transitions at once.
  4. Be interested in their new life. Talk less and listen more and you will have a chance to see just how they are evolving into their new life. Don't be critical when they do it differently than you would or don't ask your advice. Help them in a gentle way to explore their options or give advice only when they ask or you feel it is absolutely necessary. You might be quite surprised to hear how they think.
  5. Recognize that once a child leaves, they never come home again in the same way. As you'll begin to relate to one another as respectful adults, you'll benefit from open discussions about the need to evolve new house rules that differ from before as expectations and responsibilities change with time.
  6. Develop your own interests, especially if they have been put on hold. Get involved with non-kid-focused tasks. Consider volunteering, getting into an exercise routine or taking out that subscription to the theatre. Let your child know that while you have appreciated having them around, will miss them and love them dearly, their task is to create their own life as confident and independent adults and not worry about you.

Being a twosome again enables you to get back in touch with all that you may have let slide or put on the back burner. Having a child leave may give you the time, energy and interest to enable you to reconnect in ways you haven't in years and this can feel like a second honeymoon. Nice walks, sharing a good article or just making the time for each other as a priority can go a long way towards remembering why you fell in love with your partner in the first place and enable you to make a good marriage even better.