Coping with the Emptying Nest: Easy Does It


By Chris Little

If you’ve got fledglings on their way out of the nest, I know you’ve also got images of them as toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergartners dancing around in your head. “How fast the time passes!” we all say. “It seems like just yesterday I dropped him off at kindergarten!” Yup, yup—it does feel like yesterday, doesn’t it? We tear up a little. Those were the good old days, right?

But I want to ask you to think back just a little farther, to those first days of parenthood, when you were fresh home from the hospital with your infant. I’m sure you can remember how happy you were. But can you remember how scared you were? How worried? Overwhelmed? My husband drove home from the hospital with our first baby at 25 mph—in a 50 mph zone! I remember alternating between passionate love for the little squirt, and a panicky feeling of “Oh no! What have we done!”

And then, as the days and weeks wore on and we began to get the hang of baby-care, there was the big Identity Crisis. Gone was Freewheeling Me, who could go out for dinner or a movie without much thought. And since I’d decided to take some time off, then work part-time from home, gone was Career-Oriented Me, who got to spend the day with peers and colleagues doing rewarding work for which I received both recognition and a paycheck. I can still remember how, until I found some play groups and other social groups, I felt a little lost, a little lonely. Remember those days?

No, I’m not trying to bring you down! I just want to remind you that when you first became a parent, it probably took some time for you to find your way, and to work out who you would be in this next phase of your life. The point I’m trying to make? That as your kids grow up and make their way out of the house, you can expect it to take some time for you to adjust to this new phase, too. And it could be a bumpy ride.

I remember that when my mother-in-law’s youngest headed off to college, she tried out a succession of interesting new hobbies—teaching parenting classes at her church, attending Native American retreats, even engaging in some drumming circles—before she settled into her authentic path of jewelry-making, tennis playing, and working in her husband’s office.

Another older friend took some time out to write a novel and learn to paint watercolors when her youngest started his freshman year in college. “It takes a while to figure out where you fit in,” she told me. In fact, I’ve read it can take from 18 months to two years to regain your footing as you transition from parent with kids at home to parent with kids out in the world.

Other parents head back into full-time work, which can provide the stimulation and structure they’re missing now that they don’t work the carpool circuit anymore.

Whatever direction we ultimately take, we need to be patient with ourselves—we floundered a little when we became parents, and we can expect to flounder a little now. We should be gentle with ourselves when we find ourselves feeling a little lost. And pay attention to the little whispers we hear that might point us toward our next adventure. So here are some ideas I’ve gleaned from friends and other experts who’ve been through the emptying nest:

3235483251_7f3a9d7b34Be true to you. Allow yourself some sadness if that’s how you feel. Part of living a rich life is being present to your feelings, even the sad ones. But get help if things get too dark or you can’t find your way out.

Reconnect. You’ve finally got a little more time for yourself, so don’t rush to fill it. Check in with your friends and see who wants to go out to lunch. Work in the flowerbeds. Start a journal—writing regularly is a great way to explore and work through deep or difficult feelings.

Nurture yourself. Often we put our dreams and desires on the back burner when the kids are around. Now is your chance to move them to the front—even the little ones. Get that pedicure you’ve been putting off for the last 18 years. Have a massage. Rent the chick flick you could never talk your sons into watching with you. Start that exercise routine you always promised yourself.

Draw closer to your partner. This is a great time for you and your spouse to regain your pre-parenthood closeness, and taking time to share your feelings about this transition is a great step in that direction.

Relish the positive. Sure, you’re sad the kids aren’t loitering around the kitchen while you cook. I hear you! But look on the bright side: The bathroom stays cleaner. The carton of ice cream in the freezer lasts longer. The water bill is smaller. And there are fewer shoes and socks lying on the living room floor. It’s okay to enjoy these things!

Take credit. Give yourself the opportunity to feel proud of yourself for having raised that little infant into a functioning adult. That’s quite a feat! Allow yourself to feel that sense of a mission accomplished.

And through it all, keep your eyes peeled for what feels interesting or exciting to you—those are clues to what the next exciting new phase of your life is going to look like!

But first, let me know: How are you—or how do you plan to—find your way through the empty nest transition? It’s less than a month before my first heads off to college, so I need all the ideas I can get!

Images: Some rights reserved by © 2006-2013 Pink Sherbet Photography and akk_rus.

13 thoughts on “Coping with the Emptying Nest: Easy Does It

  1. Your description of driving home from the hospital brings back memories — I remember as the nurse helped us buckle in the car seat and then left, we looked at each other like, “Isn’t she coming home with us?!” Have been slowly working toward the empty nest stage as my two are in high school and increasingly have their own social ives (freeing up an evening for that chick flick without complaints from the testosterone gallery!). While I will miss them, I also look forward to this next stage — so many interests, so little time!

      • Not so much new things as much as more time to do things I enjoy — More time to read for pleasure, a little more consistency with the exercise/running routines, more time at the cabin, rejuvenation of my gardens, etc. But would I have wished away the weekends on the road, driving to a nordic ski meet or cross-country race, sitting an auditorium listening to a youth symphony, sitting up late waiting for a teen to come home after a night out with friends? Of course not. You can have it all, just not at the same time. Life is good.

    • Kat – It is amusing to hear about your and Chris’ thoughts when you came home from the hospital with your babies. My son is adopted, yet we had a similar experience when we brought him home from our agency. As we walked up to our house holding our beautiful baby in our arms, I looked at my husband and said, “Now what?” Even with all of the experience and education I have in early childhood (including infant care) and elementary education, it all went out the window when I had my own child!

  2. This is a wonderful article, Chris! All of these tips I can see being used even for parents such as myself who are sending their little ones off to Pre K or Kindergarten. Well done!

    • Hi Jen, thanks for the comment — I meant to make that explicit, that these tips don’t apply only to empty-nesters but to anyone going through a family transition! Thanks for reminding me!!!

  3. I adore this post and thank you for sharing these ideas. It makes perfect sense that this is a learning process. Thanks for the reminder to be patient with myself.

  4. I adore this post and thank you for sharing these ideas. It makes perfect sense that this is a learning process. Thanks for the reminder to be patient with myself.

  5. Chris, this post stirs so many memories but also speaks to exactly what I needed to hear, as I prepare to send my oldest daughter off to college. Thank you for all the words of wisdom! More ice cream in the house is definitely a good thing. 🙂

  6. Pingback: Left Behind: How to help younger sibs adjust when a big brother or sister heads to campus | Off the Merry-Go-Round

  7. Reblogged this on Off the Merry-Go-Round and commented:

    A new crop of college freshmen heads out soon, and parents everywhere are preparing for “the big day.” We thought it appropriate to revisit writer Chris Little’s excellent series on “The Emptying Nest” including this piece reminding parents that “Easy Does it.” Wishing everyone the best!

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