The Empty Nest Transition
The empty nest is a time of mixed emotions. On one hand, you’re happy your teenager is graduating and moving on with their lives. They’re reached an important milestone, and you’ve helped get them there! But, on the other hand, this post-high school graduation phase of life can be confusing, sad, and emotional for you, the mother of a soon-to-be graduate.
As a time of transition, the empty nest (as this “parent-of-high-school-graduate” time is often known) can hit you without warning. For me, it happened at my son’s graduation ceremony. Sitting in the audience, watching him process past me without a glance my way, I suddenly realized he no longer needed me. The truth is that he probably hadn’t needed me for a long time. But that was the moment I became acutely aware of that something had shifted between us.
Worse, I was devastated. He’d be gone to college in less than three months. When that happened, who was I without my son’s presence in our family? Plus, I knew his two younger sisters would quickly follow him over the course of the next three years. Questions swarmed my thoughts:
- What would I do with my time without the kids’ schedules giving a seasonal and daily rhythm to my life?
- Where would I be spending my time if not at their athletic events?
- Why was I feeling so incredibly miserable?
- Would my husband and I have anything in common now that the center of our lives (a.k.a, our kids) would be moving on?
The important question
I kept asking myself these questions, over and over like a broken record. But the one question I didn’t ask myself was this: How am I going to get through this empty nest transition?
Back then fifteen years ago, I had very few support structures or healthy means of managing the stress, anxiety and depression that descended as one by one, all my children left our home for college. In addition, I had no knowledge of transitions or of the normal three-stage transition process which includes:
- Letting Go of the Old Way
- This is the psychological releasing of what was, and the key here is that we can only let go when our hearts are ready.
- Moving In-Between
- Usually the vast, swampy middle-ground of a transition that can feel like a roller coaster. Yet this time also holds immense opportunities.
- Accepting the New Way
- This is when you begin to redefine yourself, or come home to yourself. You begin to actively participate in your new role, relationships, life situations.
Without this key information, I didn’t realize that life transitions have a normal trajectory. And that there are things we can do to help deepen our awareness of these stages and to move mindfully through them.
Empty Nest Transition
Before I move into a few tips for navigating the waters of your empty nest, (or to keep the metaphor pure I should say reweaving your nest!), a few general words about transitions are in order.
First, while your empty nest experience is as unique you as mine was to me those 15 years ago, know also that moving through the phases of a transition happens on each person’s own timeline. Not your partner’s, your best friend’s, or that mom who seems to be handling her empty nest without a backward glance. In fact for many, this time won’t even qualify to them as a transition since it’s not significant enough of a change to negatively affect their well-being. (This was the case with my husband.) And that’s OK.
They’re who they are, and you’re you: unique, full of your own positive and negative life experiences.
Don’t skip a stage
Sometimes I think that the three-phase transition process is the best-kept secret on the planet. My reasoning? Well, one reason is that our society and culture often encourages us to skip over the first two phases, and jump right into the third (Accepting the New Way).
The problem with this is that each stage is important. And when we skip over letting go or give ourselves permission to work through the swampy middle, we short-change this opportunity for growth, gain wisdom, and full integrate what’s happening in our lives. In fact, by shortening the process, we run the risk of this transition popping up the next time we head into another, completely different life transition (like a medical crisis, divorce, loss of a parent, job, etc.).
Also know that each of us moves through these stages at our own pace and in our own time. If you feel “stuck” in one phase, ask yourself if it’s because you’re trying to move through too quickly because culture and society is telling you that you should be over this by now, and moving on. Chances are you’re not stuck. You’re feeling the pressure of “getting over it.”
Unfortunately, or actually fortunately, there is no getting over a transition. There is only getting through.
Strategies for Navigating the Empty Nest Transition
So with this in mind, here are some strategies for navigating each of the three stages:
- Letting go of the old way:
- What are you needing to let go of? Is it control, or reliance on your son or daughter, or feeling busy? What are you willing to let go of now, and what will have to wait for later? Make a list of a few things that come to mind.
- Your role as mother is changing, but that doesn’t mean you need to let go of everything. What can you carry forward with you? Maybe it’s your love, or maybe you enjoyed doing something with them that you can now find a way to continue doing. Make a list of whatever comes to mind.
- How can you create a ritual to help let go? Maybe it’s something as simple (or not) as helping them clean out their room, or closet, or box of old school papers in the basement. Maybe you take a trip together, just the two of you. Rituals help us release and transition.
- Moving in-between:
- Create a list of your supports, the people and the practices that help you remember who you are. These should be good friends or relatives who offer no judgment, but are willing to listen and give feedback when asked. Add to this list the practices or hobbies that give you pleasure, peace, or respite: napping, reading, listening to music, taking a yoga class, walking, watching birds, art-making.
- Discover your values. Write them down. If you wonder more about them, take this free, easy, and well-researched survey. Think about how these values can provide support to you at this time. How can you rely on them to make decisions, restructure your life, move forward?
- Be open to possibility. This stage has been likened to swimming the ocean, because it feels vast, dark, and deep. Yet, it’s also a time rich with opportunities. Notice your wild thoughts and dreams. Write them down. Do any of these excite you or terrify you? Spend some time answer why.
- Accepting the New Way:
- What are you looking forward to as you move forward?
- What new practices are you bringing in?
- How can your values be of help right now?
- What might help you at this point? Maybe it’s repainting their bedroom, or rearranging it. Whatever helps, when it begins to feel like you’re looking more forward than backward, you’ve turned the corner.
Your empty Nest is not the only transition happening
Lastly, be gentle and compassionate with yourself. You’re going through a tough change. But there is also someone else going through a transition, your son or daughter. As I’ve written before, transitioning to college can be incredibly stressful for a teenager. And this is true whether they’re moving away from home or commuting. In essence, you both may be experiencing this change differently. So be aware of this. Talk about it with your child, your partner, and supportive friends. It’s not the end of the road, though it may feel like it.
In fact, transition mentor and physician Elliott S. Dacher, MD writes:
Transitions are wonderfully troublesome times….They arrive to rescue us from a part of our life that has been lived to completion and deliver us to an aspect of life that is yet unknown. When we succeed in our transitions, we shift the shape of our future life.
The empty nest can be a time of confusion, pain, and feeling lost. Yet, it represents an important period that is ending. How will your approach that which is still unknown? What will support you in that process? These are all good questions to ponder as you navigate the this troublesome but wonderful time of transition.
Ginny Taylor is a life transition mentor at Women of Wonder where she guides women in life-changing transitions towards a new beginning. Journaling and creative expression are some of the practices she helps women utilize on their transition journey. She is a certified Transition Writing Specialist, certified Journal to the Self instructor, and holds an MFA in creative writing. Read more about Ginny here.
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