Empty Nest – Mark Newstadt, MD

Empty Nest. Time to Start Living?

Now that our daughter, the youngest of five, has gone off to college, the house seems desolate and lonely. Being a pediatrician, I see lots of teenagers in the office embarking on their college careers and so I thought I would be prepared for the next stage in her and our lives. If you also feel anxious, empty, down or even devastated since your youngest has left home then you’re certainly not the first nor the last parent to miss your “baby.” While this can initially be a very sad and trying time for some, there are advantages.

I will elucidate a few benefits:

  • It may now be possible to enter your teenager’s room without colliding into a pile of clothes, papers or books.
  • The bed may actually remain in a presentable state.
  • All the doors can now remain open with no mysteries behind them.
  • The volume of music from various parts of the house is reduced to a point where conversation may now be possible and sleep no longer an unattainable goal.
  • Chips, crumbs, or spilt salsa are no longer found on the couch in the living room or bed. After industrial cleaning of the carpet, it will no longer be embarrassing to entertain.
  • The microwave no longer looks like a war zone nor is the kitchen sink full of dirty surprises in the early morning. The kitchen may now get an A rating for cleanliness.
  • No more school conferences.
  • No more preparation of school lunches. Knowledge that they are eating “healthy” food at college can be measured by the Freshman Fifteen.
  • The vibe in the house is much calmer in the absence of teenage tension.
  • There is less laundry, food, water and electricity consumption.
  • Parents have more time to read, travel, and spend with each other.

Nevertheless, despite all the potential benefits, many of us struggle with the emptiness we feel when our youngest child leaves home. Some parents may even need help in the form of professional counseling to enable them to adjust to this new stage in their lives.

It is important to realize however that there are different phases through which teenagers and their parents have to undergo to effectively cope with the empty nest. First, the senior year, before a child goes to college, can be very stressful from start to finish. In the beginning, school demands are high with college applications and visits, scholarship submissions, and pressure to obtain good grades. Towards the year end, social demands intensify with prom, graduation, and parties. There is little time to spare. In the event of a free moment, our teenagers would rather go out with their friends than spend time with family – a point of stress and contention.

It is important to realize……..that there are many different phases through which teenagers and their parents must go to effectively cope with the empty nest

At the moment when our kids are bidding farewell to their fading childhoods, we attempt to hold on as tightly as we can. But after all of the college preparation, we finally must drop them off at school, a take back to that first day in kindergarten—we must finally loosen that 18-year-old knot.

That first year in college may be filled with ups and downs as our birdie learns to juggle school, diet, finances, social life, and laundry independently with intermittent visits from parents and vacation breaks at home. This sometimes disrupts the momentum that has been gained in emotional adjustment for all concerned. Routines have been established by both parties: college kids have established their own rules or lack thereof, and parents have adapted to life with more freedom and less interruption. During breaks at home, old expectations collide with new realities. Rules still need to be applied but may have to be revised appropriately for the older, more independent and hopefully more mature young adult.

During breaks at home, old expectations collide with new realities

So, how do we deal with these mixed emotions as we observe our young “prodigies” disappear over the horizon?

Here are a few easy steps:

  • Do not try and control their lives anymore. There is no point and the timing is too late. A reminder to brush and floss their teeth and take their vitamins would probably be ignored.
  • Pat yourself on the back for raising an independent young adult who is now able to survive in the real world with a bare minimum of support. Life can be really tough when you have to wake up by noon, get all your meals made and bathrooms cleaned, and party most weekend nights with your friends.
  • Redecorate the room. For starters, see what it looks like with the bed made and the pile of crumpled clothes previously on the floor now folded in the closet – or even better still, donated.
  • Travel more. Take a romantic getaway without cell phones and computers.
  • Rediscover your relationship with your spouse. Talk and listen more. Exercise more together.
  • Relax, sleep in, and restore your sleep pattern.
  • Eat more healthily. Read widely.
  • If you have anything left after paying college tuition, build up your retirement nest egg so that your nest, though empty, will be well padded.
  • Finally take a class, start a hobby, volunteer and/or expand your spirituality. You may need some divine help down the stretch.