Empty nest: Now what? Reclaiming your life after the kids are off to school


July 28, 2010
Kristina Knight
Staff Writer
Love and Romance

With college open houses past and decisions made, teens across the country are packing up to ship off. College for the teenage set means excitement, a time to live on their own. No rules. No supervision. But for the parents left at home, college means something more.

No, we aren’t talking about the bills, tuition and, “Mom, I need a little extra money,” calls that will begin in a few weeks. We’re talking about the empty nest that leaves so many parents wondering where their life took a wrong turn.

When it comes to love and relationships, nothing is a more mucky area than children. Yes, we love our children. Yes, we want the best for them, but after spending so much time teaching and training them, to watch them go off to college or get that first job can be an emotionally excruciating roller coaster.  This is particularly true when the leaving leaves your nest empty.

Sure, you still have your friends, but focusing so much time and energy on your kids may have created a void in your life that you can’t see that void until the kiddos have flown the coop. Never fear, empty nest syndrome is a common thing.  Chances are they felt – or are feeling – exactly the same way. So, should you start a support group? Not necessarily, after all that would be like treating the empty nest wound by dosing the nest with even more people you need to take care of.

Before signing up for an empty nester’s support group, consider spending a little time with yourself first. This isn’t selfish talk. If you want to thrive in your empty nest rather than just survive it, you have to put your personal needs first. For Janell Dennis, an empty-nester at the ripe, young age of 40, a new job came along at the same time the empty nest appeared on the horizon.

“Looking back, it was harder to see Mandi go, and it’s not because the ‘baby’ was leaving, but because she would be 7 hours from us,” said Janell. “We knew when we dropped her off [at Henderson University in Arkansas]that we wouldn’t see her until Thanksgiving. We can get to Megan, who is one year older than Mandi, within 2 hours, but Mandi was 7 hours away.”

And then came news of a new job, which threw Janell even more outside of her comfort zone.  “I had been on my job for 8 years and all of a sudden I was at a job that I knew nothing about. I had been used to being the one with all the answers, and I was now in the position that I had to ask. I felt like my whole world had changed.”

Janell relied on her husband, Trent, to get her through those days. A spouse can be a huge support during this time of change, but you have to know when to ask for help and when to allow yourself to grow. The first step? Set up a date night.

Take a random evening and set it aside for each other. You can do the dinner-and-a-movie thing, take an evening bike ride or just spend the evening cooking an elegant dinner. Make this a regular event and spend the time together, but no talking about the kids or work. Talk about your hopes, dreams and decisions – just as you did before you got married.

The second step? Don’t focus all of your attention on your spouse. Think about things you liked doing before the kids came along. Did you paint? Do you like photography? Writing? Sewing? Volunteering? Try your hand at a few different things to expand your personal horizons. Even exercise can help push you into a new comfort zone! How did Trent and Janell cope? By remembering, even when the children were home, that they were also a couple.

“We did have to make sure, all along, that we had our time together. For example, I run, but I run early so as not to take away from Trent,” said Janell. “People know we are ‘alone’ now, so they tend to ask us to do things. That is when things can become too busy and you lose track of each other. You have to have balance [because]it can be easy to fill up the free time with whatever [comes along].”

What if you don’t have a spouse to hold hands with, have dinner with or simply be with? For single parents the empty nest years can be especially scary. Many single parents are now choosing to remain single until the kids are out of the house so that there is no confusion about relationships. Dipping your toes back into the dating waters once the kids have gone off to school, however, may be scarier than you think.  How can you know if it’s time to start dating again? The simple answer is that you can’t, at least not until you get out there. How to get out there?

The first step: Tell a trusted friend that you think you may be ready. Ask for their help meeting a new man (or woman) or two. Try just one date. It may fizzle or it may spark, but either way you’ll know that yes, you’re ready to date or no, dating is not for you.

If the date was a dud but helped you realize that you are ready for a new relationship, tell a few more friends about your decision. Accept a few more blind dates. And, the biggest step of all, sign on with an online dating service. You may still meet a few duds in the online world, but you may also hook up with someone very special. Someone you could spend the rest of your life with – and isn’t that what relationships are all about?

“We always kept in the back of our minds that one day they would be leaving, but instead of wanting to keep them babies, we wanted to see what they would become,” said Janell. “Each year was ‘what will happen next’. Plus, since we had the girls so young, we were looking forward to being by ourselves and still being young!”

Finally, single or married, remember that as your children begin their life’s journey you are continuing your own journey. There may be miles of rough roads ahead, but there will also be breathtaking vistas, some amazingly funny moments and a life filled with characters that will make your journey worth every stumble and tumble.


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