Whoever coined the term "empty nest syndrome" did not think it through. It's a handy descriptor of parents depressed by their kids leaving home, but, like many buzzwords and buzz phrases, it's inaccurate. For one thing, the nest isn't empty. Children depart, yes, but parents remain home, awash in memory and complex emotions, affixed to caregiving habits that they must break, and looking at themselves through different, sometimes clearer, lenses. Certainly emptiness can factor into the situation, in the forms of grief and loneliness, but other feelings also cross the threshold: anxiety, annoyance, excitement, and even pride. It's a significant time, and anything but empty. But, for the sake of convenience, we'll call the following Hudson Valley parents Empty Nesters, whose lives, nevertheless, are quite full.
Graphic designer Mark Lerner and calligrapher Nancy Howell, of Phoenicia, have experienced a myriad of emotions since their twins, Lukas and Edith, headed off to their respective colleges—Lukas to Johns Hopkins, Edith to Barnard—in autumn of 2012. Almost two years on, the couple looks back with a mix of nostalgia and, increasingly, relief. "We all sat in a Häagen Dazs near the Barnard gates," Nancy recalls of the day they said good-bye to Edith, "and the tears were just flowing. 'The last ice cream before she leaves!' Afterward, the vacuum created by the kids being gone was immediately replaced with anxiety."
"Nancy and I were both really sad," says Mark, "and most worried about our kids' social lives, about them being lonely. They were pretty happy with their peer groups at Onteora High School. Sure enough, it took them a while to find their niche among new people. It was a rough first year for both of them, and for us, but we all hung in. Nancy and I kept saying, 'When do we stop worrying about the kids?' But when they returned for Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations, it struck us, in a good way, how much they'd changed."
"They were so much more confident," Nancy says, with a bittersweet smile. "Like they needed us a lot less. It was really great, even though I was expecting a huggy homecoming and it wasn't that way. But now, we've all adjusted. Mark and I sleep later, and he's playing a lot more music. He took up cello last year. [Mark and Nancy are veterans of several NYC bands.] And the kids have their separate lives; they're not part of our new routine. There are even times during vacations when they get on our nerves, and vice versa." "But these are first-world problems," Mark says. "It's a natural trajectory."
Natural, yes, but the so-called empty nest can bring real trouble to a family, particularly marriages in which partners have been invested in child rearing to the detriment of individual needs, or avoiding a breakup to spare their kids anguish. ("Staying together for the kids, yes," says Mark of this commonplace phenomenon. "Nancy and I are staying together for the cats.")
In the wake of her own daughter's departure for college a decade ago, therapist Natalie Caine, MA, recognized strife among her circle of fellow parents. Many, like her, were transitioning to childless households, and struggling in various ways. Depression, resentment, and regret abounded, and Caine wanted to help. She started Empty Nest Support Services, and has been counseling parents ever since. This July 4-6, she'll be co-conducting the workshop "Beyond the Empty Nest" at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck.
"The emptiness after a child leaves can actually be a wake-up call," Caine says. "There's a fabulous opportunity to find out who you are, and who you are not. From there, parents can begin to build inner resources, like courage, and outer resources, like travel, or a new career, or reconnecting with friends. I help parents make that new path happen. People use the workshop to get out of patterns, or find parts of themselves that are dormant, parts they didn't even know they had; we get those to rise up. And everyone gets to tell their stories in a supportive group, which is great, because people feel isolated. In fact, the most common question I get is: 'Is this normal?'"
Not only are empty nest-related problems normal, they are becoming more familiar with the US divorce rate on the rise, even among long-term couples who've raised families together. (Ironically, statisticians link this to an improving economy. Getting divorced is expensive, and during the downturn, many couldn't afford it.) Lachlan Brooks, only child of Cheryl Taylor, an illustrator, and Alan Brooks, a writer and software designer, called home to Mt. Tremper last winter with sobering information: Several of her fellow first-years at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts were seeing their parents' marriages crumble from afar. "It was her way of checking on us," Alan laughs.
"We homeschooled Lachlan," says Cheryl, "so we're really close-knit. We'd never even had a babysitter. We already knew we needed to keep lines of communication open with her, but we realized, especially in light of that call, we needed to focus on us, too. Here at home, Alan and I had broken our family habit of having a sit-down dinner together, which we'd always done with Lachlan. Now we do it as a couple, every night." Additionally, Cheryl has resumed her career as an illustrator, which she'd put on the back burner to homeschool Lachlan, and Alan has begun developing apps and moving ever closer to the guitar that beckons from his workspace.
The Brooks-Taylors also use social media, as do the Lerner-Howells, to stay in touch. "I never thought I would get into texting," Cheryl says, "but it's been a convenient way to stay connected. Lachlan can dash off a line or two between classes, or send a photo of a current project, and we can share home news, or send her a quick snap of her kitty sleeping on her desk chair. Texting, e-mail, and the phone all certainly help close the distance."
When asked if their experiences with their departing kids mirrored how things went down with their own parents, both couples said no. "We're the 'hovering generation,'" says Nancy. "My parents were clueless, they didn't even know where I applied to college, and that was normal. There was no big family involvement."
"It's partly because higher education is so expensive and competitive, more so than ever before," adds Mark. "The cost of everything is through the roof, even if you're getting help. That necessitates more involvement from parents." Cheryl echoes the same story: "For me, there was no parental involvement in schoolwork, or encouragement for college," she says. "That's not to say they didn't care, but the parenting style was much more casual. In the last few decades there's been a lot more emphasis on parenting styles, on the importance of early education, and also higher education for everyone. That it continues to be a huge growth market is proof enough."
"We're way more involved with Lachlan than my parents were with me or my siblings," says Alan. "I was raised in a large family—eight kids. My dad worked two or three jobs his whole life, so our time with him was limited. Lachlan appreciates how different it is for her. Kids know the score."
But parents, either blinded by sadness or exhilaration when their child moves out, sometimes do not know the score. "My bottom-line message to couples," says Natalie Caine, "is 'Get to know yourself.' Reassess your marriage. One person may be very excited about a child leaving, while their spouse will be grieving. Yet, you can find commonality and help each other out. Keep your windows open. When one closes, lift another."