Synopsis: When the last child leaves home for college, marriage or that first job, parents are often sad and at loose ends about how the rest of their lives will progress. We talk to a therapist and author who’s experienced her own children leaving home, about the emotions of “the empty nest” and what parents can do to reframe their lives when the children go out on their own.
Host: Marty Peterson. Guest: Wendy Aronsson, psychotherapist and author of “Refeathering the Empty Nest.”
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Refeathering the Empty Nest
Marty Peterson: It seemed like just yesterday that you were bringing your new baby home from the hospital. Now, she’s leaving for college, or that first job away from home, or maybe to get married and move into a home of her own. No matter what the reason, the last child leaving home is an anxious time for both the young person and the parents left behind. Will the young person be okay? And what will our lives be like now that I’m not a hands-on mom or dad anymore? Wendy Aronsson knows how it feels. She’s a mom with kids who left home, and she’s the author of the book, “Refeathering the Empty Nest: Life after the children leave.” She says the process has three stages: anticipation, launching and resolution…
Wendy Aronsson: The anticipation stage is just as it sounds – when we’re preparing and anticipating for the young adults to leave. So this would be a stage, for example, when they first get their driver’s license when they’re becoming more autonomous, more independent, they start applying to colleges, or for their next stage or phase in their lives if they don’t attend college. It happens very slowly, it’s not like turning on and off a light switch. After that is the launching phase, and that phase would be when we take them to college, when we get them settled in, when we begin to learn to parent in a different way than we had been before because they were in our house and our “nests”. The latter stage is the resolution stage, and that stage is when we’ve come up with a new rhythm, a new landscape to our life and it could be between, you know, the communication and the time you spend with your spouse. It could be also how you relate to your children, it could be starting a new career, having a new hobby – all of these things that are incorporated into the resolution stage.
Peterson: Aronsson says that every parents’ emotions are unique to them, and there’s no telling how each will react when the child finally leaves.
Aronsson: To generalize, I think one might be excited to finally have more time to themselves and to pursue things that they didn’t have time to do. Yeah, there might be an enormous sense of loss because, again, this has been our job description for 18+ years and all of the sudden this job description changes. Sometimes people don’t know how to redefine themselves or how to use this time in a way that they’re really going to enjoy life, and there are other people who are really scared, that’s another common feeling, scared what their life is going to be like, but also concerned about their children, you know what’s it going to be like for them to be out on their own. So, scared and anxiety – I would couple them often together.
Peterson: She says that she doesn’t believe that the “empty nest syndrome” really exists, but some parents can feel the loss more deeply.
Aronsson: So if you are finding yourself really, you know, difficulty getting up in the morning or difficulty going to sleep or really a functioning issue, then that’s when you need to have a look under the hood and get some help. Aside from that, you might feel some sadness, but that doesn’t mean that this is a full-blown depression.
Peterson: Aronsson says that how a parent feels when a child leaves depends somewhat on what kind of parent they were when the young person was living at home.
Aronsson: I think your relationship to your children is a very, very big part of it, but also your relationship with your spouse – if you have a spouse – or really your relationship to yourself. Because if you define yourself as being a mom and solely a mom then your dependence on them is so enormous that it really requires you taking a step back and really thinking, “okay, what other things can I do?” If you’re a more removed parent, sometimes those parents conversely feel somewhat remorse and wish they used their time differently with their children. This is so individual, that the impact of parenting your children and separating, you know, ironically from your children is going to be often influenced by your relationship.
Peterson: Just anticipating that a child is going to leave the “nest” soon can bring about a number of different reactions in a parent. Aronsson uses animals to describe how a parent might behave in this phase…
Aronsson: The hummingbird kind’ve flips around chaotically, but fanatically is a better word for it rather than chaotic. Fanatically, and getting all sorts of things done and really, really leaving no time to feel on what it might be like to be without our children or to have our children not in the “nest”. The stunned deer is just like it sounds. People are shocked and they almost go in a way or proceed in their life in a way that things are going to remain status quo. They can’t either move forward, they can’t move backwards. There’s such fear and such concern that it really can be very consuming. Then, there’s the eager beaver and that eager beaver is the person who takes on their young adults’ departure as if it was another career so they form lists and they learn everything they can about the college, if they go to college – or how to prepare your children. They’re so consumed in perfecting their children’s departure that that too sometimes can hinder their own evolution, as to when the children leave.
Peterson: We always think that the mom is going to be the one in tears when her child finally says goodbye, and the dad will be calm and even stoic about the departure. Do men and women today feel and behave differently than their parents did in that situation?
Aronsson: Absolutely. I just got off the phone with somebody who was talking about this, and a very well known author who was saying it’s so funny because my wife felt much more stoic and I’m much more sensitive and upset at this loss. I think that there’s so much more involved. From the moment of conception, you know, they’re there during sonograms. I mean it sounds so silly, but this has been so different than previous generations. Fathers, often times, today will leave work early to come and see one of their children’s productions or be part of one of their athletic games. There’s so much more involved, that I think father’s are feeling it much more so, or even more aware of it, much more so than year’s gone by.
Peterson: So when the child is gone, what then? How do parents continue on with their lives? Aronsson says they should give some thought on how they’ll “reframe” this shift in their lives.
Aronsson: To reframe it, they can use this time to reinvent themselves, to have a new career, to reignite their marriage. If they’re not married, hopefully allowing their time to – if they would choose to – have a romantic relationship, allowing time to focus on themselves. It’s also the time where you can really sit back and watch, and listen and have the gratification of really seeing the fruits of your labor. I can tell you firsthand we have two children, one who’s 20 and one who’s 24, and I have loved every step of the way of being a parent, but being at this phase and watching them develop into young adults is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. So, that is another reframe. I don’t mean to say that there aren’t trials and tribulations along the way either, and there aren’t times missing being a mommy instead of a mom. Those things are there, but it’s looking forward and looking forward to what the possibilities are, and I think that the best way to reframe is, possibilities.
Peterson: Most kids can’t wait to be out on their own, but there are exceptions. What do you do if the child doesn’t want to leave?
Aronsson: First and foremost we hope we teach our children the skills and the tools to be independent. If the young adult does not want to leave, to me, I would say that that pretty much signals something else is going on. Usually, most want to leave the “nest” and want to be independent. For those who don’t, perhaps there is a reason why there is concern about, you know, what will happen if they’re on their own, and conversely the parents, perhaps were not thinking of way to help prepare their children to be, or their young adult, to be on their own. It is important that we teach our children to be independent, and again, that doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process, and that process can, even if they do leave, sometimes parents have a really difficult time separating and allowing their children the space to be independent.
Peterson: Aronsson says that preparing for the inevitable departure of the children is also a process, and one that parents should think about seriously long before the final goodbyes. She adds that they shouldn’t think of their “nest” as being “empty” – rather that it’s evolving into something new, different and exciting. You can find more information about the process of letting a child go and reframing your life after they’re gone in Wendy Aronsson’s book, “Refeathering the Empty Nest” available in stores and online. She also invites listeners to her website at Wendyaronsson.com. To learn more about all of our guests, log on to our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron, Reed Pence and Nick Hofstra. I’m Marty Peterson.