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The empty nest is not a syndrome

The internet is loaded with information about almost everything, and the empty nest is no exception. This is not the same thing as saying the internet is loaded with truth about the empty nest! One of the most common myths floating around cyberspace is that there is a syndrome associated with the empty nest: empty nest syndrome. Most of us heard that term before our children left home, and my guess is that the addition of the word “syndrome” to “empty nest” created some subtle changes in our expectations for that key transitional period of life. So, if you would like to take a look at an alternative explanation for what is popularly called “empty nest syndrome,” or ENS for short, keep reading!

The term “empty nest” was coined in 1914 when writer and education reformer Dorothy Canfield Fisher wrote her book on motherhood entitled Mothers and Children. She used the term to describe the contraction of the family at the time when children start their own households outside of the family home. In 1970, the diagnostic term “syndrome” was added and ENS became a clinical psychological diagnosis. However, as psychology advanced as a science, little evidence was found for designating ENS as its own psychiatric illness, and the syndrome is no longer found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Yet, there is no denying that many of us struggle as children leave the home and begin to build lives of their own. Thus, the obvious question is, “If the empty nest is not a syndrome, why do I feel so sad?”

There are actually some really good reasons why people may struggle with despondency at the empty nest transition, and here is some even better news: these issues don’t require your children to move back home in order for you to resolve them! In other words, there is hope. You can move past the empty nest struggles and thrive.

In this post I’ll list four main reasons people experience ENS, and then over the next few posts we will discuss some ways to address those issues and move toward flourishing in the second half of life. Ready? Keep an open mind to these ideas, and dive in with me. . .

1. Midlife and the empty nest is a key developmental stage of life. Like all developmental stages, this one requires us to change our thinking and our habits, and change is always stressful. Think back to when your children entered the terrible twos or to when you went through adolescence. Did you experience stress, angst, frustration, and fear? Sure! We’ve all been there, and this empty nest developmental stage of life will bring the same negative thoughts and emotions. But we made it through the other stages, and we can make it through this one too. Soon, you will be proud of the person you have become on the other side.

2. Dormant marital conflict often rises to the surface when the children leave. Why? Because now we have more time to spend with our husbands again, and those nagging issues that we put off because the kids kept us so busy are now demanding to be addressed. Sounds terrible, but actually the empty nest is a gift for our marriages. We will need a strong marital relationship as we face old age and now we finally have the time to build one with our husbands.

3. Preexisting personal issues can also bubble up for the same reason that marital issues do—in the empty nest we have time and space to deal with them. If we are willing to do the hard work on those perennial problems, we will find that the extra time the empty nest provides is a true gift to our future selves.

4. And finally, the relationship between us and our children changes significantly as they start to forge their own identities and build their lives independently of us. It’s hard to let go of that sweet little boy or charming little girl and watch as they forge their way into adulthood: we can no longer give them specific direction and provide the answers like we did when they were little. But we can build new relationships based on mutual respect and shared experiences.

Did you recognize the common theme that all these ENS triggers share? You are not helpless! Each one can be addressed with intentionality and commitment to continued personal growth. There's no requirement for time to move backwards and the kids to return to the home. We can work through these issues and develop an empty nest life we love to live.

Here’s the framework I’m using to address all of these issues in my own life: First, I acknowledge my problem areas and commit to working on them. Then, I spend time in God’s word so that He can address the changes I need to make in my own heart. I confess, ask for wisdom, and pray for healing as needed. Finally, I talk about my struggles with husband Jack, my trusted friends, and occasionally even my children. Usually I find I am not alone in my experiences! With God’s grace and the love of friends and family, I am building an empty nest life where I can thrive.

I’m looking forward to discussing these concepts with you over the next few weeks! I hope you tune in next week, and—better yet—drop me a line or comment below so we can encourage each other! Thanks, friend, for being part of the conversation.


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