A stack of freshly washed sheets, a mattress pad, and duvet cover clutter the corner of a once pristine dining room. New hangers, storage bins, extension cords, and Command Strips litter the table. The month is August, the air is thick, warm, and filled with emotion. It is back to school time in Lake Forest and Lake Bluff, which means many of us are sending our children off to college and coming home to clean dining rooms, shoeless mudrooms, and a quiet that we haven’t experienced in nearly two decades. For many, this is the beginning of the empty nest.
Parents across the nation are struggling with the conflicting emotions of sadness, loss, celebration, and hope when taking their children to college. To some, the sadness seems selfish as it is a time of joy and pride—our children GET to move on, our children are launching. And many of us think “What will I do with my time? Will I be lonely? How will I fill the empty time I used to spend in the bleachers? Do I even need to buy granola bars and Cheez Its anymore? What about me?”
“I felt like the rug was pulled out from under me,” Erin Foley remembers.
Foley, a lifelong resident of Lake Forest and mother of four, says that while each drop-off was difficult, leaving her youngest son was the most heart wrenching.
“I am the type of person who likes to be prepared,” says Foley with a warm laugh and carefree seriousness. “When I came home (from drop off), I felt so flat … I was so sad … and it was so unexpected. I’d never had anything hit me as such a bad surprise as much as this did. I kept beating myself up in my head saying, ‘Stop it, what’s wrong with you?’ “
Nothing was wrong with Foley. What she experienced, and what many parents anticipate with melancholy is the phenomenon commonly known as Empty Nest Syndrome.
“While it is not a clinical disorder,” reports Dr. Elizabeth Fishman, Psy.D of Dr. Elizabeth A. Fishman & Associates in Lake Forest, “Empty Nest Syndrome is very real.”
“For many men and women, children provide them with a sense of purpose,” Fishman says. “Parents are used to having lives consumed by taking their children to activities, school, sporting events, and friend’s houses. Without parents being occupied by their children’s lives, the question becomes, ‘What do I do now?’ Many feel they have lost their sense of purpose.”
As if this transition isn’t enough, Fishman notes this is a time of life where many women are dealing with menopause and both women and men are getting ready to retire. Additionally, many parents are dealing with facing their own mortality for the first time. These major events converging can be a lot to handle.
“For the first time in my life, I was seriously thinking that ‘I’m getting older,’” Foley says. “I never thought about that until I was an empty nester. It’s like you get launched into a completely different part of life and you didn’t even know someone was putting you on that rocket ship.”
For Laurie Doherty, it was the lunches. While many moms dread making lunch every day, Doherty, a 24-year resident of Lake Forest, loved it.
“I am a nurturer,” she proclaims. “I loved making special breakfasts and lunches for my boys. I loved being involved in their schools through volunteering.”
And then came the day during her youngest son’s second semester of his senior year at Lake Forest High School, when she realized she wouldn’t have to make anyone’s breakfast or pack lunches or make big dinners.
“I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’ I felt like I lost my job as a mom, and the sadness was big and shocking and real,” Doherty says.
Both Missy Burger and Tiffany Notz, a three-year empty nester and an almost one-year respectively, express similar reactions. They describe motherhood as landing the ultimate dream job. The one you wait for, you love, and you thrive at (even during some bad seasons). And then, one day—seemingly in the blink of this magical career—you are called in and told you are being let go. You are no longer the CEO. You now have a cursory role on the advisory board, and it is time to redefine your life and purpose.
“Leaving my son at college four years ago was tough,” says Melanie Thornberry, Lake Forest mother of two. “As my daughter and youngest prepares for school, I have a better idea of how to get through the silence at home. It was extremely important for me to feel like I still had purpose after my kids left, and I found that in the restart of a career.”
“I’m still a few months away from the goodbye hugs in Bloomington, so I can’t say for sure how hard this will hit, but I find solace in knowing that I will be needed at work on Monday as her first college classes commence,” shares Thornberry.
Fishman encourages her clients to reflect on what a purpose looks like to them and uses words like “zest” and “passion.” She asks them, “What did you love to do before the kids?” It could look like volunteering, part time work, exploring previous passions you once loved. Maybe it is time to get out your easel and paint brushes, dust off your old guitar, or become involved again in philanthropic events or boards.
In order to prepare for an empty nest, Fishman suggests the following to help get parents through:
- Start to think of your interests and passions again.
- Establish good social support with friends and family—talking about your sadness and loss with your trusted social circle will help you realize you are not alone.
- Structure your day to have a daily plan and purpose.
- Exercise! Physical activity releases endorphins and endorphins make us feel good.
- Prioritize your marriage! Fishman says many parents can make the mistake of putting off dealing with marital issues until their kids leave home. You need to nurture your relationship and yourself.
- Plan date nights during the week—taking a walk and setting aside time to communicate with your partner will go a long way.
Both Foley and Doherty have found joy and purpose as empty nesters.
“Once I started to talk about my sadness and loss with trusted friends, I felt validated,” says Doherty. “Once the sadness and loss were named, it made sense. I was losing something significant, so of course I was sad.” She was then able to accept her feelings and slowly become open to life, instead of feeling like her life was over because her kids were gone.
Doherty also points out that launching her sons into the world was what she always wanted. When parents can look at this change as an exciting time for their children and themselves, it brings about a sense of joy, gratitude, and accomplishment.
Not long after her youngest graduated, Doherty and her husband Dan bought a second home in Florida where they began what she calls “a new adventure.” She loves to share this home with her sons and extended family, allowing her to make those breakfasts and lunches she loves.
Foley began to anticipate the empty nest several years before her oldest went to school by getting heavily involved in volunteering, so by the time her first child left, she was already established. While she was still shocked by her sadness and loss, she was already doing something she loved. While activities and a new passion will not fill the place of your child, having something that is yours does help.
As parents head into this new phase of life— the phase of quiet and less chaotic homes, less laundry, shorter grocery lists, and more “me time” than they have had since their twenties, they can learn from one another, share with one another, and begin the process of rediscovering purpose while thriving during new roles as parents and as individuals.