Flying The Coop
Some parents are delighted at the thought of a house without kids, enthusiastically planning to turn their child’s bedroom into a study or hobby room the day after they’ve left for university or married life. But if that’s not you, take heart. Empty nest syndrome is a major life transition and can be stressful and unsettling. Facing the music
The first step to overcoming these emotions is to accept that you are upset by what’s happening, advises counselling psychologist Rita Suliman. Define what you’re experiencing, then acknowledge that it’s related to your kids leaving home. But, whatever you do, don’t bottle up your feelings, adds Mary Ovenstone, a Cape Town couples counsellor and coach. ‘You need to feel the emotions in order to process them and eventually let them go. If you repress your feelings, they will come back to haunt you.’ Along with deep sadness, you may feel confused and displaced, asking yourself questions such as: ‘What am I going to do now?’ or ‘Who am I, now that I’m not a mom or a dad with kids at home?’.‘Consciously grieve the passing of family life in order to exit that phase of parenthood and find a new lease on life – otherwise you will live in regret,’ says Mary.
Avoid becoming that empty-nest parent who sends their adult children on guilt trips, making them feel obli-gated to visit their lonely old mom and dad over the weekend. If you find you’re still struggling to move on, speak to a counselor. Filling the void‘Your children won’t need you in the same way they used to, so you must find a way to be productive – a way that isn’t linked to your kids,’ says Mary. Focus on the present, not the past. ‘You never stop being a parent, you’re just moving into the next phase.’ It helps to redefine the meaning of ‘family’. Are you still a family now that your children aren’t at home and you are no longer running around for them? Absolutely. The only thing that’s changed is that you need to establish new rituals to keep the connection strong – perhaps Sunday lunches, family holidays or birthday celebrations. Don’t forget to relish me-time! Remember those years when all you wanted was peace and quiet, but all you got was blaring music and strange people in the house? Now you have what you wanted.
Whatever you do, don’t bottle up your feelings
Now is the time to recreate your partnership and enjoy the life you both deserve
Both you and your partner may experience some restlessness and irritability during the empty nest phase. According to Mary, it often overlaps with menopause and its lesser-known male counterpart, andropause, a major hormonal transition that occurs between the ages of 50 and 55. In dealing with this, men tend to project their own inner turmoil on to their wives (‘What’s wrong with her?’), while women ask them-selves, ‘What’s wrong with me?’. If this sounds familiar, you may need to reassess your roles as father and mother, husband and wife, as well as your relationship with each other. ‘If your children were the only bonding force in your marriage, you and your spouse may need to restore what’s been neglected in your relationship,’ says Rita. Going for couples counselling can help to ease the transition to being alone together again.
Just Do It!
Draw up a plan for the next phase of your life before the kids leave home. Also make financial investments so you’ll have enough money to enjoy this stage, advises Mary. Ask yourself:
- ‘How would I like to spend my spare time?’,
- ‘What can I do to spend quality time with my partner?’,
- ‘How can I express myself as a person?’ and
- ‘How can I support my partner’s personal growth?’.
If you nurture your own career, interests, hobbies and key relationships, you will have something to focus on when the children are gone. List all those things you’ve always wanted to do – and follow through on them, says Rita. ‘Making a list isn’t the end of the process. The next step is action, and this is completely your responsibility.’ Now’s the perfect time to renew or start friendships with like-minded people, so set up coffee dates and sign up for socially inter-active classes. If finances allow it, broaden your horizons by travelling. ‘Explore our country and your surroundings. This is your second chance to live your dreams,’ says Rita.
An empty nest can be doubly difficult for a single parent, so put more effort into your existing relationships and explore ways of meeting new people in your neighbourhood or area. If you are married, you could consider renewing your vows or your commitment to each other – if not literally, then figuratively, says Rita. Both of you have probably changed and grown during your child-rearing years, yet the focus on parenting may have prevented you from noticing these changes. The empty-nest phase is a great opportunity to discover your partner’s ‘new’ self. It’s also a second chance to enjoy being a courting couple, says Rita. ‘Now is the time to recreate your partnership and enjoy the life you both deserve.’ Sit down with your partner and discuss fun and exciting ways to spend more time together. Designate a weekly date night where you go out for dinner or start an activity such as pottery, dancing or gardening.