A Senior Essay


Susan M. Kearney

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Submitted to the Interdisciplinary Studies Program

College of Lifelong Learning

Wayne State University

Detroit, Michigan

In partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of


April 5, 2002


Approved by:

      _______________________________________          Date   ____________

                     (Senior Essay Advisor: Dr. Moti Nissani).


      _______________________________________           Date  ____________

                         (Senior Essay Examiner: Dr. Frank Koscielski).


      _______________________________________           Date  ____________

                         (Senior Essay Examiner: Barbara Suhay).

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Preface . . . 1

Chapter One – My Story. . . 6

Chapter Two – Empty Nest: An Overview . . . 16

Chapter Three – Mothers Face the Empty Nest . . . 32

Chapter Four – Are Fathers Parents Too? . . . 54

Chapter Five – My Story Continued . . . 68

Chapter Six – Conclusion . . . 76

Appendix One – Questionnaire . . . 78

Appendix Two – Empty Nest Humor . . . 81

Works Cited . . . 84

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When I knew I had to do this senior paper before graduating, I had pretty much planned on writing about the family vacations that we had taken over a thirteen-year span. These vacations were one of the most influential, memorable experiences of our family lives. My children, my parents and I ventured out every year to drive through and experience as much of our country as we could. Although my husband did not go on these trips, he re-lived them with us, not only when we called him, sent him postcards and told our stories upon our return, but also every single time when we recounted our tales and adventures. He knew many stories of these trips as well as if he had been there with us. Having kept a daily journal of our vacations, everything we did was well documented lest we forget or argue over some minor detail of one of our escapades as we sat around remembering these trips for the millionth time. Having been fortunate enough to do a directed study focusing on many of the places we visited – the folklore, the history, the legends – I still thought I would continue with stories of our travels in this senior paper.

When class started, however, my instructor told us that he would prefer that we write about something new…something that we have never written about before. I was a little disappointed as I was forced to let go of my idea and find something new about which to write. It had to be something we were passionate about since we would be "living and breathing" it for the next several months. I found, though, that I was kind of excited about the idea of researching and learning about a new topic, even though I didn’t know what it would be. As I mulled over various subjects, I came up with the idea of writing about something that I was experiencing at the time. Having just sent our younger child away to college, my husband and I were adjusting to a new stage in our lives – the empty nest. And the more I thought about writing about this topic, the more it made sense to me and, in a strange way, it paralleled the beloved vacations that we took as the children were growing up. This "empty nest" topic concentrates on what is most important to me – my family – and like the many vacations we took, it is a road to another new adventure, filled with bumps and pleasant surprises. As I let go of my children, I also let go of my idea to write about our past. So here I am, off on a journey of exploration of this new stage of my life, to see how others experience it and to get some insight on how to survive and thrive.

Once the decision was made to explore this topic, I began talking about it to friends, co-workers, fellow students. I was surprised at the overwhelming positive feedback and interest in this subject. It seems that everyone has a story…and wants to share it. "you should talk to my mother. She had seven children….." "Oh, you can interview me, I’ll tell you what I went through." "You think I’m suffering from empty nest? That was the best time of my life." "You should talk to my sister. She’s way too involved in everyone’s business since her son went to college." Even the man standing behind me and a friend in line at Subway for lunch one day had a story to tell. Overhearing me tell my friend about my kids going off to school, he came up to me and said "Enjoy it. My 24 year old daughter just moved back in and I’m going crazy!"

I discovered that, much like the pregnant woman who goes out in public and strangers feel the need and the obligation to engage her in conversation with advice, warnings and the benefit of their knowledge and experience, so, too, do strangers who overhear you talking about your children leaving home feel the need to engage you in similar conversation.

Believing in the significance and importance of personal history, I know that everyone has a story to tell and everyone’s story is important. So I thought that I would incorporate personal stories into the research I was doing. I began by creating an informal questionnaire about parents’ experiences with the empty nest syndrome. I then e-mailed and mailed these questionnaires to everyone I knew, asking them to respond and pass the questionnaire on to their acquaintances who may be interested in telling their story. Over a period of a several months, the questionnaires trickled in.

I received a couple dozen replies and found that they were very interesting. When I mailed the questionnaires to my friends, I purposely included both the husband’s and wife’s names on the envelope and I sent two copies of the questionnaire – one for each of them. I did not receive a single mailed response from any man. I did receive a few responses from male colleagues of my husband. However, their responses were extremely brief despite the instructions and in sharp contrast to the women’s responses. Only two of the men’s responses – one of them being my husband’s – went into any depth, at all, over their feelings and reactions to their empty nest.

I want to point out that, since my intention was not to collect statistics nor develop any type of sophisticated, scientific data, but rather to have people share their stories and feelings with me, my questionnaire is just that – an informal questionnaire, rather than a survey. My instructions clearly stated that I would prefer detailed answers to questions rather than simply a "yes" or "no," which I didn’t feel suited the purpose of this paper. And I must say that I was surprised at many of the responses that I received.

Surprised is probably not the right word. I was moved by the honesty and touched by the depth of feeling that many of these mothers poured into those answers. As I read some of the responses, many hand-written and crammed into the answer area, I had the feeling that some of these women were writing these answers for their own benefit rather than to help me with this paper. It seemed that they felt the need to express their feelings for their own peace of mind and peace of heart -- that by taking the opportunity to put their feelings on paper they were sorting their feelings out for themselves. And I certainly hope that perhaps this paper, not only helped me explore this subject, but helped them in some way, too.

There were a couple of questionnaires I could not use. They were submitted by parents who did not become empty nesters voluntarily. Rather, divorce prompted their involuntary empty nest status. Since there were other issues at play here, I felt that it would not be right to include these responses. I received a strongly worded note from a not-yet empty nester who couldn’t wait to become one! I would be interested in reading her responses to the questionnaire once it was a "fait accompli." A couple of other partial or not yet empty nesters responded even though they technically don’t fit the definition; they apparently felt the emotion of the situation. One of these was from a woman in Italy whose parenting experiences are somewhat different than ours. While I couldn’t use her responses, I found them most interesting.

One final note regarding the respondents to the questionnaire – I have changed the names of all whose answers appear in this paper to protect their privacy.

I also must make mention of the fact that as I was reading some of the books and articles about the empty nest, there was so much information that I would have loved to pursue, but was unable to without going off in several more directions. Some of these readings touched my heart and soul and validated much of what I was feeling. They are valuable resources for those, mothers especially, who are faced with this transition.

So, here it is. My story, the stories of other empty nest parents, the words of experts and those interested in the subject. I hope the reader finds this subject as interesting as I have.

Before I begin, though, I would like to thank a few people for their parts in making this paper possible. First, I would like to thank everyone who responded to my questionnaire. Without their cooperation, this paper would not be. I would especially like to acknowledge all of the mothers who truly put their hearts and souls into their answers. Each shared many of her innermost feelings with me and I certainly respect every one of them for her willingness to express these feelings and for entrusting her personal stories to me.

I would also like to thank my parents for giving me such good examples of parenthood. I want to express my appreciation to my husband for his encouragement and for being my sounding board while I was writing this paper, for tolerating my monopolization of the computer and surrounding areas and, of course, for his role in co-parenting our children. I would like to thank my sister for being my long distance critic. I e-mailed each chapter for her to read and comment upon, which she willingly did.

I would like to thank my committee members, Dr. Frank Koscielski and Barbara Suhay for taking the time from their busy schedules and lives to read and participate in this process which will allow me to successfully complete this final degree requirement.

Finally, I would like to thank my children. Without them I never would have known the depth of feelings and love that I have within me. Without them I would never have experienced the satisfaction and pride I feel as I see them grow into responsible, caring, independent adults. Without them I would never have become an empty nester. Without them my life would never have been as full and meaningful as it is. And for that I am grateful.


Susan M. Kearney

March, 2002

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Chapter One


Of course I knew this day would come. I mean, the whole goal of raising children is to send them off into the world as responsible, independent, contributing members of society. While I knew that this was the goal -- that from the day of birth, no, really from the day of conception, parents are preparing their children to leave -- to become independent of the mother’s womb. . .of the parents’ arms . . .of reliance on someone else for every need. With about eighteen years to go, it seemed like this day was too far away to worry about. And not being a goal oriented person – I much prefer the sights, sounds and experiences along the way rather than focusing on the end product – I didn’t really begin to become too concerned about this until my son’s, my older child’s, senior year in high school.

I am fortunate that I was able to truly allow myself to enjoy my children. I also believed all of those "older" people who told me that the children grow up too fast and before I knew it they would be gone. I was determined not to wish away any of their childhood and that the words "I can’t wait until…" would never cross my lips. I wanted to enjoy every stage, every discovery, every new emerging part of their personalities, every everything. And for the most part, I did. I savored every step from conception to the goal.

But then, sure enough, I blinked and the time was here to let go of my son. It seemed inconceivable that in a few short months he would be gone. Even a year earlier, during the summer before his senior year, when he and I went on our college "shopping trips" visiting institutions of higher learning which might become his potential home for the next four years, it didn’t seem that he would really be going…although I knew he would. And so, after high school graduation, we prepared. We took our shopping list (compliments of the college) and off we went to buy bedding and linens, clothes, school supplies and everything else that he needed to take to his new living quarters. Being a boy, he wasn’t too interested in the aesthetics, pretty much anything, in any color, would do. Being a mother, I wanted to make sure that we didn’t miss a thing and in the name of "just in case" we bought more than was needed.

In the midst of all of this, I knew that the day was creeping closer and closer. I would cry just thinking or talking about his leaving. I couldn’t imagine the house without my son. I kept in touch with a couple of other mothers who were also sending their sons to school. And we regularly e-mailed one another for moral support. It did help knowing that they were feeling the same way. I knew, too, that my son was not gung ho to go away either. He had, on numerous occasions, mentioned that maybe he didn’t really want to go away to school. Even though I would have loved for him to stay home, I knew that he needed this experience and his father insisted upon it. He needed to take those steps out on his own -- to continue that quest for independence that we began so many years ago. Eighteen years of preparation brought us to this day.

Patrick packed everything up and the night before we were to leave we loaded up the van. We had an early start and a long day ahead of us. The school was about 200 miles away, about a 3-½ hour trip and freshman move-in started at 10:00am. Freshman Orientation was comprised of an entire weekend of activities, some with the families together, but most were separate for parents or students. I got Patrick unpacked and relatively settled in his room, met his roommate’s family and got out of the way when his roommate’s father was building the loft, which was to be the boys’ sleeping quarters for the next eight months. Patrick and I went to Wal-Mart to pick up a few of the items that we had forgotten to bring. We were both very uncertain about this whole college thing. But I did my best to put a positive spin on things and keep a smile on my face. After dinner, Patrick went off to all of his orientation activities and I participated in the parents’ activities. I must admit that it felt good to see so many other parents feeling as I did (or at least that’s how I assumed they felt!). I returned to my on-campus hotel that night, though, feeling very empty.

The next morning, my husband arrived and we, again, partook in the activities. We attended a parents’ meeting in which we were given a little information about a lot of things. There was so much to take in. But I will never forget the words of the College President when he told the parents, "We know that we have your most prized possession here…your child. We take that responsibility very seriously and we will always do our best to live up to the trust you have in us to help your children grow and develop into the moral, responsible adults we all want them to be." I don’t know about anyone else…but it took every bit of will power not to let my entire body heave with the emotion and sobs that were unleashed by his words. But I was beginning to feel that, if he did have to go away, this was the right place for Patrick.

Sunday morning came, the day that I would say good-bye to my son, and I was ill and unable to go anywhere. I claim it was either a touch of the flu or something I ate the night before. Everyone else tells me it was anxiety. Whatever. My husband and son went to church and I managed to pull myself together to go out to lunch with them. Less than a festive occasion. We drove back to campus for our good-byes. None of us thought it would be a good idea for us to return to his dorm room. So we stood in front of his new "home" -- it was a beautiful late summer day with the sun shining through the trees and a wonderful summer breeze. We took pictures, hugged one another and promised to call often. Then with tears streaming down my face I got into my car, my husband got into his, we waved good-bye and drove off. I can still see Patrick standing there, looking so alone and small under the towering trees on campus.

I don’t know how I made it home -- three hours of intermittent sobbing punctuated by moments of second-guessing and worry that this was really the right thing to do. I got home, hugged my sixteen year old daughter, crawled into bed and slept.

The first few days were rough, but at least my daughter was there. She, too, missed her brother very much and so we were able to give one another moral support. My husband, also, missed Patrick but demonstrated it differently and he had just begun a new job which, I believe, helped keep his mind occupied, as well as gave him an outlet as an almost "surrogate" parent to the community college students he was beginning to teach.

We quickly fell into our new pattern of life and all managed to cope quite well. My daughter and I became much closer, I think. And I was able to spend more time with her, one on one. It seemed that things evened out now. The time that I spent alone with Patrick in the first two years of his life before Mary now balanced out as I had time to spend with Mary without Patrick.

Now that we were used to Patrick being away, we also had to get used to the emotional separation and that was more difficult. When, about six weeks after school started, his roommate exhibited some seriously disturbing behavior we were unsure how involved we needed to get. When he was having problems or we perceived that he was having problems and offered advice, there were many heated phone calls and ambivalence because it was not the advice he wanted to hear or didn’t even think we should be offering any advice at all. So I found that the physical separation was much more cut and dried. The emotional letting go was more difficult to accomplish.

His visits home were always welcome albeit not always perfect. But, overall, it was nice to have the four of us together with all of the confusion, noise, bickering and companionship, even though it was not quite the same.

As I said, with Patrick gone, I spent much more time with Mary Ellen and enjoyed most of it tremendously -- her activities, her friends, our time together, her help and even advice. But, once again, I knew that the time was not very far off before she, too, would leave. How would I do it now? What would I do without Mary? Without her coming into my room at night, laying on my bed, watching TV, talking, laughing, crying? I couldn’t imagine it.

We went through the entire ritual again. Visiting various college campuses the summer before her senior year. Though, I had done it before with Patrick, it was a different experience with Mary. Was it because he was a boy and she was a girl? Was it because he was the older and she the younger? Was it because I had never done this before the first time and now I was experienced? Was it because they were two totally different people with different personalities, needs, expectations and feelings? Or was it, most probably, a combination of all of these factors?

I was convinced she wanted a bigger school than where her brother went and we did both, very much, like one of the colleges we visited that summer and it seemed like that would be her choice. But as the time came to apply and make a decision, Mary, after much deliberation, decided on the same school as her brother. Although knowing that she and her brother would be at the same school was comforting and that the whole logistics issue would be easier, I knew she would still be gone -- gone from home, gone from me.

We made it through prom, baccalaureate, graduation where she gave the closing speech and the party just fine. Then it was time to get ready. Unlike her brother, she reveled in the preparation process, picking out a color scheme and being much more "into" the whole dorm thing. Our shopping excursions were fun. But, again, the thought of her leaving reduced me to tears as the time for her to go came nearer. She, too, was apprehensive about this move. . . about leaving home. . . about leaving her friends.

I helped move my son back to school a couple of days before Mary Ellen had to go. But then the day came. With the van packed, we got up bright and early on a beautiful late summer morning and began the drive. As we headed out, we passed her old high school bus picking up freshman and sophomores at her old bus stop. We stopped for a bagel and she ran into a new senior from her high school, an old friend, who looked at her with awe because she was now a "college" girl. She gave Mary a hug and left. It was as if these two experiences were meant to happen as a symbol of Mary ’s official farewell to her high school years.

When we arrived on campus we checked in and the "Orientation Assistants" lugged all of Mary’s belongings up to her third floor triple room. Mary picked her bed, closet and desk and we began to move her in and make this place look like home. Mothers and other freshmen popped their heads in regularly to meet us and see what a "triple" looked like. We did the same with the other girls in the "cluster." Patrick stopped by briefly to say hi and give us a hug.

We then followed our separate courses of Orientation activities, similar to those Patrick, my husband and I had been through two years ago. While much of it was familiar, the feeling was different because this time when we went home, there would be no one else there. The

house would be empty. Hollow. The phone wouldn’t ring nearly as much. Music wouldn’t be blasting from the upstairs. The piano would be silent. There would be no extra cars in the driveway. And no one to pick up after.

On Friday evening, at the "Parent’s Experience," I was sitting next to a couple whose younger child was also a freshman. We chatted a bit and, feeling very melancholy, I said "Oh, so you will be empty nesters, too." The woman just laughed and dismissed the notion, telling me, with a huge smile on her face, how it wouldn’t bother her because she was so busy and she wouldn’t really even notice that the house was empty. I must have looked shocked (or something) because she then, almost apologetically, said, "Oh, I’m sure I’ll miss her" and then continued on, happily talking about the things she would be doing. Although I had seen those commercials with the parents barely closing the front door after their child left for college before they began turning the child’s room into a recreation room or hopping a plane to Disneyworld. I didn’t really believe people felt that way, until my conversation with this woman.

At any rate, we, once again, heard the College President’s words of caring and comfort and spent an emotional weekend with our daughter. I can’t really say we spent any time with our son, except when we offered to take him out to eat, because he was already back into his college life. On Sunday, after church and lunch, it was time for our good-byes. Again, we did not want to go back up to Mary Ellen’s room, so we stood in front of the dorm, hugging one another and trying not to cry. It didn’t work for me. I cried. We took our pictures and my husband and I walked away to our cars…crying all the way. I cried on and off for awhile, but was surprised to find out that I didn’t sob nearly as much as I had two years before. Did I know it was survivable? Did I feel more comfortable knowing that would be near her brother? Did I now look forward to a new set of experiences to share with her? Was I ready for this new stage of my life? Probably, all of the above.

I found that I was able to survive. I found that I once again enjoyed the solitude that I had in the years when I lived alone, before I was married and had children. I found that I was often lost, wandering around the house, unable to focus and make use of this spare time I had. I found that my husband and I did more things together. I found that I wanted to call more than I probably should. I found that it was much easier to keep the house up and get in and out of the driveway. I found that I laughed at myself as I walked through the mall, watching mothers and children shopping together, and looking at them with a look of benign understanding and sense of wisdom. "Yes, I know what you are going through. I’ve been there myself." I found that it seems that the anticipation of them leaving was worse than the reality. I found that the dog seemed lonely, too. I found that I did miss the kids. . . a lot. But I also found that, as with every other stage of their lives and mine, I was able to adjust. I found that I almost felt guilty that I wasn’t as distraught as I thought I should be.

It seemed like we were all doing pretty well in our adjustment process when terrorism struck our country. That was, perhaps, one of the most difficult parts of adjusting. My natural instinct was, of course, to have my children safe at home with me. To be able to hug them, hold them and keep them safe. To reassure them. To take care of them. But I couldn’t. Separated by a couple hundred miles, all we could do was talk on the phone, at least it was better than nothing but certainly not what my motherly instincts craved. But it brought home to me, very vividly, that not only was my nest empty but now my children really were out on their own. They had to deal with this on their own. I could no longer kiss them and hug them and make everything better again. As it turned out, my husband and I did go to visit them several days later. We both felt the overwhelming need to see them. And rather than take care of them and make everything better we went out to dinner and discussed the situation with two young adults. I was very proud of what they were becoming.

I had given up my career, one that I loved, when my children were born. I never knew, at that time, that I would love being a mother even more. I always worked part-time while the children were growing up but whatever job I had, always revolved around the needs of the family. I spent as much fun time as possible with my children and participated in their school and outside activities as much as I could. I relished the entire experience and it was hard to give it up. But, as I said, I knew this day was coming and so a few years ago, for my fiftieth birthday, I asked for a set of golf clubs. Half-jokingly, I said it was so I would have something to do when the kids were gone. It was only half-joking because I knew that I would have to have something to do when they were gone. Then, a couple of years ago, I decided to go back to school for my degree. Again, in the back of my mind, I knew that this decision was also related to the separation that would be coming. So I tried to anticipate and worked on filling the void, somewhat.

As I write this, I am preparing for fall break, and having both of the children home again for a few days. Anxious to see them and spoil them and spend time with them, I can’t help but wonder how it will be. Strange? Will I look forward to them leaving again? Will I want them to

stay? Will they look forward to leaving? Have I fooled myself thinking I had adjusted, only to find that this separation will be as, or more, wrenching than the first?

I am finding out that being an empty nester is more of a long-term process than an overnight event. I am learning about myself, my husband, my children. I look forward to seeing how we all will develop and grow during this next year. And I am looking forward, in the rest of this paper, to seeing how others have experienced their empty nest.

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Chapter Two


Definitions, Terminology and Usage

Because there are two separate terms used in referring to this stage of life – empty nest and empty nest syndrome – I thought it would be best to begin by defining these terms and clarifying their usage.

Empty Nest:

The empty nest is an emotionally neutral term given to the period when parenting is no longer the major role of the parents. Children have grown to young adulthood and have been sent off into the world. The household has physically shrunk from several to two – husband and wife – or one, in the case of the single parent. While the empty nest period normally lasts from the time the last child leaves home until the deaths of the parents, the "empty nest" designation generally refers to the period when parents are relatively new to this stage of their lives. It seems that once the novelty of being an "empty nester" has worn off and once the parents adjust to this new phase of life, the empty nester designation gives way to other titles, such as in-laws, grandparents or retirees, depending on what stage of their lives is most prominent, even though all of these descriptions may fit.

Empty Nest Syndrome:

Strictly speaking, empty nest syndrome refers to the clinical depression that accompanies the cessation of child-rearing and, therefore, is an emotionally charged term. The term "empty nest syndrome" became popular after research in the 1960s found that women became depressed after children left home. However, a little known fact of this research is that the studies were done on women already hospitalized for depression. Unaware of this information, the general public wrongly assumed that it was the average woman who suffered severe depression at the emptying of her nest. Consequently, the stereotype that developed as a result had little basis in truth. I have found that this term, though, is generally not used in this clinical manner. Rather, it is commonly used to indicate any negative or unhappy feelings or emotional distress that parents have regarding their children leaving home whether these feelings are mild or severe, normal or abnormal.

Despite the difference in these two terms - one being a simple statement of fact and the other describing the negative feelings that are associated with that fact – I have found that they are often used interchangeably. In many of the books and articles I have read, as well as in the conversations with and responses from parents, it is evident that, even if one does not necessarily believe that these terms mean they same thing, they are often used to convey the same thing. Patricia Gottlieb Shapiro addresses this issue in My Turn, "And the term ‘empty nest syndrome’ often used interchangeably with empty nest, has become part of our cultural language." (18).

Because of this interchangeable use of terminology both terms will be used in this paper as they are used in the literature and words of the questionnaire respondents. I believe that, even though it may be confusing at times, it demonstrates some of the confusion that is associated with this subject as well as the acceptance of this cross-terminology as part of our cultural language.

Myth or Reality?

Does the empty nest syndrome, in its non-clinical form, really exist? Do parents really experience distressing feelings when their children leave home? Is there any validity to these feelings? Is it normal? Or is this all just a myth? Is it all just an over-reaction to a normal stage of life? Are those who experience any of these symptoms abnormal? Is this just a new "made-up" phenomenon? Do most parents breeze through this time of experiencing only positive reactions?

The answers to these questions pretty much depend on who you talk to. Donald Spence and Thomas Lonner report that in our culture, sociologically and historically, the empty nest is a new phenomenon in the family cycle due to smaller families and the fact that child-bearing is concentrated in the early years of marriage. (369).

Bovey says, "Psychologists, on the whole, recognize that it is a time of mourning and enormous adjustment, but not all agree on that and some sociologists actually deny the existence of empty nest syndrome." (22). She further says that "in 1979 gerontologists Troll, Miller and Atchley observed that the family literature abounds with contradictory statements about empty nest syndrome [. . .] Such inconsistency in the research would suggest that this experience is highly individual and subjective and that its effects are too diverse to be accurately measured by scientific methods of research." (22).

Even within the research that I have done, I’ve found that there is a wide difference of opinion as to how the experts explain this transition in life. Paula Span writes in a Washington Post article about the empty nest. "An emptying nest is merely what experts call ‘normative transition’ – something we can anticipate and plan for. ‘It’s not bad, it’s a good thing,’ says Sumru Erkut, a social psychologist at Wellesley College’s Center for Research on Women, who has one son who’s launched and a 17-year-old at home. ‘It’s just that nobody prepares you for how excruciating it feels’." So even an expert answers some of these questions with conflicting statements.

Many colleges, recognizing that the empty nest does affect many parents, now incorporate seminars, presentations and even ceremonies during orientation to address this "normative transition." Understanding, humor, advice and boxes of tissue are mainstays of these programs. And because the range of emotions and individual feelings, "it’s hard to know how to respond [. . .] when some parents are looking forward to tango lessons and to converting a child’s bedroom into a multimedia center, while others want to wail and rend their garments, and most of us are someplace in the middle." And I think that it is very true that "most of us are someplace in the middle."

Olson concurs, and I believe comes close to the reality of the empty nest, "While most women do not sink into depression at the departure of children, there can often be a brief, but intense, period of emptiness and loss.[…]where the sadness and mourning for the departed child can be expressed and cried about – a middle ground where parents deal with an empty heart, not an empty nest." (147).

However, adding to the aforementioned contradictory views regarding the empty nest, Olson also tells us that "while some women may experience such symptoms, evidence that most do not is mounting." (144). And I question her statement, "When asked about their feelings during interviews for this book, ‘Wonderful!’ was a common response by both mothers and fathers who no longer had any children residing at home [. . .] embarrassed laughter of mothers which followed this reply, often with a quick glance to see if anyone else might have heard this ever-so-honest admission." (145). This far too simplistic reaction only perpetuates the idea that empty nest syndrome is a myth while, one can conclude, the purpose of this statement was to dispel another myth – that most mothers suffer from empty nest syndrome.

Again, demonstrating the contradictory information and research on this subject was this press release I came across issued by Mississippi State University last year. I presume that the intent of this publication was to allay parents’ fears that their child’s departure may bring about emotions and feelings of sadness and grief which would, naturally, be of concern to the parents. So in a rather light-hearted manner the following information was disseminated:


News You Can Use


Empty nest syndrome: For the birds

University Relations
News Bureau (662). 325-3442
Contact: Brooke Adams
July 31, 2000

STARKVILLE, Miss-With the back-to-school season approaching, parents whose youngest child is heading off to college may worry over the so-called "empty nest syndrome."

Don't be too concerned, advises an associate professor of psychology at Mississippi State University. Why? Because empty nest syndrome "is a myth," says Carolyn Adams-Price.

"Most parents actually are happier when their children leave the house," she adds. "They have more private time together and many times marriages improve."

Since parenting teenagers can be very stressful, it may almost be a relief when all the kids finally have left home.

Adams-Price says parents usually feel "satisfaction and pride" when their children enter college because of the realization that they have successfully launched the child into the larger world. If there are sad feelings, the cause may be a realization that they didn't spend more time with their children during adolescence.

With the added free time, parents usually find time to do things they may never have done. Many couples begin to travel or begin new hobbies. Some women who have never worked may return to college or begin a career.

"Of course, there will be times when parents miss their children, especially in the first few weeks," Adams-Price says. "Most likely, however, homesickness is more common with the children than with the parents."

Communication is the key for helping homesickness, she adds. For parents experiencing loneliness for a child, she recommends telephone calls and, if available, e-mail.

"E-mail can be the best way to stay close because the child can answer the message when he or she wishes. Parents sometimes can feel discouraged when they telephone a child and he or she is not there to answer."


I believe that, rather than make parents feel better, this information bulletin does a

tremendous disservice to them. Parents, who may already be feeling sad and dejected at the prospect of their child’s leaving are told that this is all a myth, causing them to question their feelings and their reactions to this emotional time. As they are, perhaps, looking toward the college for support during this time of transition – and as we have seen other colleges empathetically attempt to deal with the range of parents’ emotions – this communication does nothing to address the very real, not "mythical," feelings that parents may be experiencing. Regardless of the "pride and satisfaction," the lessening of stress and the other positives that eventually may be realized by parents whose children have left, the casual half-sentence relating to parents missing their children certainly over-trivializes what could be a very difficult time for parents. Consequently, I think that parents, for whom the empty nest scenario is a new and, perhaps, an unplanned for transition, may return home feeling more than the benign and brief "missing their children" and may begin to question themselves as they, in fact experience the very real, deep emotions of the empty nest which are anything but the myth they read about.

While it is obvious that there are two points of view on the issue of the existence of the empty nest syndrome, I am definitely in the group that believes it does exist. If my own experiences were not enough to convince me, many of the responses to my questionnaire and much of what I have read strengthens my belief in its authenticity. This is not to imply that everyone must confront these feelings, although I suspect that most people do to some extent, however mild or fleeting it may be. It does not seem to make sense to me that a parent can live with a child, whom they love or, at the very least, have interacted with on a daily basis for eighteen years and not experience some feelings of loss. Some of these parents, as I have learned from a number of the sources I consulted, did not expect to experience these feelings and felt well-protected and insulated from them, only to find themselves, much to their surprise, face to face and unprepared to deal with these emotions. However, there are still those parents for whom the empty nest is a blessing or who are neutral about it, accepting the fact that their children are leaving and feeling neither happy nor sad about it.

I think that it is plain to see, then, that whatever one feels or whatever view one takes of the empty nest syndrome, the conclusion must be that it does exist. Calling it a myth or "so-called" empty nest syndrome denies the very real feelings of a multitude of parents.

Empty Nest Stereotypes

I think portrayals of empty nesters are far too stereotyped and clichéd. It seems as if the picture many have of the empty nesters is either/or - either that of the parents, mother especially, weeping and inconsolable at the departure of her children or that of the ecstatic, care-free couple who can’t wait (big grin, wink-wink) for everyone to be out of the house and on their own. In truth, the world of the empty nesters is not so black and white. While there is no denying that there are many positives to life after the children are gone, there is also no denying that there is an emptiness and a void that is left upon their departure. Both of these sentiments can go hand in hand and neither feeling must be exclusive of the other. Yet, despite the research on and the reality of the complexities of this transitional period, the stereotypes remain.

Here are a few personal experiences which illustrate the pervasiveness of these stereotypes. I recently asked a female co-worker to complete one of the empty nest questionnaires for this paper. She seemed a little indignant as she said, "do you think I have empty nest syndrome?" Her response was a classic example of the negative connotation that empty nest syndrome has. I told her that I wasn’t implying anything by my request. I further explained that I was only interested in her experiences and feelings, positive or negative, for the purposes of this paper. I believe her reaction to my request was definitely indicative of her perception of the negative empty nest stereotype and not of her own experiences which she briefly expressed to me as being the "best time of her life." She never did complete the questionnaire. However, I think her account of this time in her life would have been interesting and insightful and would have given some balance to the responses I did receive.

A short time later, I spoke with a male co-worker about this paper. He told me that he and his wife were lucky because "they never talked baby-talk" to their children and always treated them as people so when the children left he and his wife didn’t have any empty nest feelings – as if there was some connection between these two ideas and as if not having empty nest feelings was something to be proud of. This certainly did not suggest that he thought empty nest syndrome carried anything but a negative connotation.

Rather than simply say their experiences were positive, these two became defensive or explained that they were lucky not to experience any empty nest feelings. There was, definitely, the implication that experiencing any sad feelings or unhappiness was a sign of weakness or a character flaw. This is simply not so.

Two other incidents over the past several months also come to mind regarding the perception that people have of empty nesters. I was at a relative’s funeral recently and saw a cousin who I had not seen in several years. We were catching up and talking about our families. Her children are under ten. I said that my kids were both at college and a big grin crossed her face as she said "so you’re empty nesters now." In a similar incident, at a basketball game, I ran into a friend that I hadn’t seen in a while. We again were talking about our kids and the same smile, with a giggle, crossed her face, too, as she said the same words, "so you are empty nesters."

The very common response from those who still have children at home indicates to me one of two things. Either, at this stage of their lives the stress that accompanies their family lives is overwhelming and they fantasize about the day when they will be without children and their hectic lifestyles. Or, they are imagining that empty nesters are living lives of unbridled lust and passion now that they are alone again. Both of these scenarios are based on unrealistic perceptions. They are simplistic and one-dimensional depictions, each focusing on a single aspect of life without kids and ignoring the totality of this stage of life. On a scale of one (devastated) to ten (ecstatic), some parents will be ones, some will be tens, most will be somewhere in between.

All of these incidents, whether related by people who had been through the empty nest transition or coming from people who still had children at home, indicate that many people have a skewed view of this stage of life and believe in clichéd portrayals of the empty nest. As with most stereotypes, both of these extreme empty nest characterizations are wrong. However, both of them are perpetuated and actually believed by many people, even those who have been through it themselves.

Loss and Grief

In his book, Good Grief, A Constructive Approach to the Problem of Loss, Granger Westberg discusses all types of losses, from great ones to small ones. "Another grief situation may center around the children of a family. A child is lost not through death, but through marriage. He takes all his belongings from his room and the house is lifeless. A house once filled with laughter and joy is now as quiet as a tomb." (17-18). Empty nesters experience a loss and they must face it. Westberg talks about various manifestations of grief: shock, expression of emotion, depression and loneliness, physical symptoms of distress, panic, guilt, anger, resentment, returning to reality and acceptance. Some, all or none of these expressions of grief may be demonstrated by those whose houses are now empty. The important thing to remember is that it is not abnormal for parents to grieve during this time of their lives.

Bovey also addresses this issue of loss and grief. She refers to Barbara Ward’s book, Healing Grief, when listing the stages of grief: shock and disbelief, denial, growing awareness of feelings, including some or all of the following: longing, anger, depression, guilt, anxiety, acceptance (103). Bovey gives detailed accounts of parents’ demonstrations of these stages with relation to their children’s leaving home. Her poignant stories of parents dealing with their loss clearly reveal that empty nesters do, indeed, experience grief. It is not easy but it must be faced and accepted. Bovey concludes, "here is a time to grieve and a time to move through grief, to leave it behind." (133).

In a lighter vein, Schaffer and Wasserman explain, "our guide identifies the symptoms and suggests remediation for the eight clinical phases of ENS (empty nest syndrome) as defined by Schaffer and Wasserman:

    1. Denial (He’s still just a baby!).
    2. Grief I (I’m sad, sad, sad.).
    3. Acceptance (It’s healthy she’s leaving.).
    4. Grief II (So who needs healthy?).
    5. Recovery (I think I’m ready to go to a play.).
    6. Grief III (Oy, I’m so sad, he was in a play.).
    7. Relief (I don’t have to pretend to enjoy the damned play.).
    8. Glee (Hey, I’ll be in a play!)." (10-11).

In contrast to this belief that some parents must be allowed to grieve before they can accept this new stage in their lives, is an article in the Detroit Free Press. Pauline M. Millard’s article "Good-bye, kids; Hello, loneliness" published on September 17, 2001, makes a number of suggestions aimed at helping parents get through this period. However, much like the press release offered by Mississippi State University, I believe that this article does a disservice to those parents who are experiencing grief. Despite the fact that one mother briefly speaks of the difficult grieving process she went through when her children left for college, the subject of grief is never mentioned again. Susan Newman, a social psychologist and Rutgers University professor recognizes that parents experience a range of emotions when their children leave home but believes that preparation will lessen the severity of these feelings. "Making plans for the new found free time is key to dealing with the transition well, Newman says. Instead of looking at this new period with sadness, Newman suggests concentrating on career or volunteer work [. . .] Start these activities before the kids leave. That way when parents come back to an empty house after making the college drop-off, they won’t have to stop and wonder what to do with themselves." Another mother offered this suggestion for avoiding the empty nest blues. A short vacation on the way home from dropping their child off at college got them used to life without their daughter. Remembering how I felt after leaving my children at school, vacationing would be very low on my list of things to do at that time. Somehow, crying and sightseeing don’t seem to go very well together. However, a vacation apparently worked for this mother which, once again, points out the diverse reactions parents have to this phase of life.

We will see from some of the responses to the questionnaire that preparation and entertaining activities immediately following a child’s departure do not necessarily make the transition easier. Certainly, diversions can divert one for awhile but that would be simply prolonging the inevitable. Newman’s remedy does not recognize the need for some parents to face this loss and experience some, or all, of the stages of grief that we have seen some of the parents experiencing, before getting on with their lives.

Alison Berryhill, in her article "The Empty Nest" tells of mothers whose experiences cast some doubt on Newman’s advice. One mother, whose life was full of church, career and other activities thought that she was too busy and well prepared to suffer any grief. She found, however, that her activities did not fill the emotional gap created when her children left and she was surprised at her feelings of sadness and missing her children. Another mother likened her daughter’s departure for college to losing one’s parents, "no matter how ready you think you are, you’re not." Berryhill goes on to point out that a meaningful career is not a guarantee against empty nest sadness. She advocates parents talking to other parents who have been through the emptying of their nests as a tool in getting through the grief. We will encounter this same suggestion from a mother in the following chapter.

Speaking for myself, I definitely went through a stage of denial – knowing that the kids would be going but denying the reality of their leaving until it actually occurred. I felt an emptiness within me and a sense of loneliness. I also felt a real sense of being unable to focus on things around the house. While I had much more time to myself now, I felt that I couldn’t focus or concentrate on things and therefore I was "wasting" this time. I felt aimless and disconnected, usually around the house. I was fine at work, although I clearly remember one day walking down the steps, heading for home when suddenly from nowhere, I was overcome with a tremendous feeling of missing my daughter. It was as if I was surrounded by this feeling. I remember wondering why, seemingly for no reason, I was hit with this feeling. And I had prepared for this transition – I had a job, I had returned to school and I planned to take up golf – yet the feeling of loss was still there. Escaping or hiding from one’s feelings does not mean they will go away. Acknowledging and dealing with them is a far healthier way to get on with life.


In Necessary Losses, Judith Viorst talks about the various stages of adult development. Our lives alternate between periods of stability and periods of transition. The empty nest stage of life is definitely one of those stages of transition. But more than just the children leaving, parents are faced with numerous other transitions common to middle age which may affect the empty nest adjustment. Other researchers besides Viorst, as well as my own questionnaire respondents allude to some of these circumstances. I have experienced some, myself, and so I feel that they are certainly worth mentioning.

Besides being faced with the departure of one’s children, this is the time that most women are also facing menopause. Certainly the physical and emotional experiences that women face at this time in their lives can be compounded by the departure of their children, or vice versa. And, though most would not want to start again, women who relished the role of mother are forced to accept the fact that the choice is no longer theirs and that this is a most definite sign that middle age has arrived.

Additionally, this is also the time when the empty nesters’ own parents are aging and when an entirely new relationship may be developing. As mothers are giving up their roles parenting their children, which they may not want to do, they now may be taking on the roles of parenting their parents, which they also may not want to do. The difficulties, emotions and role reversal that face parents in this situation may negate any positive feelings that might have been brought about by an empty nest situation and magnify any negative feelings.

Many fathers are now assessing their careers or getting ready to retire. It can be a time of distress if career expectations have not been met. And the feelings of role loss that accompany retirement are much of the same type and severity as the feelings mothers face at their role loss with the departure of their children. (Roberts and Lewis, 331).

Many adults, at this stage of their lives, begin to confront their own mortality. They have, in all likelihood, already lived half of their lives. With the deaths of parents or colleagues, middle-aged adults are forced to face the fact that life, indeed, is not forever.

The departure of children is often the catalyst for many of these concerns, or at least for the preoccupation with these concerns. As long as the kids were still home and parents were busy with their lives, it was easy for mom and dad to think of themselves as young. But now the kids are gone and parents are forced to realize and admit that middle age has arrived. So besides losing their children, parents are also losing their youth. Consciously or subconsciously, these midlife factors can influence how some people react to their empty nest.

As I sit around a dinner table with my group of friends, all the same age and all having been friends since high school, thirty-some years ago, our discussions are filled with many of the above mentioned concerns. Groans and laughter erupt as we talk of hot flashes and night sweats. Concern and empathy are evident as those of us with aging parents listen to each other’s stories of this stage of our lives for which we really weren’t prepared. Those whose parents are deceased listen, too, with a sense of loss and relief – missing their parents yet thankful that they aren’t faced with the difficulties which the rest of us must deal with on a regular basis. Laughter again erupts as we discuss our husbands and imagine what it will be like when they are retired and are home all of the time. And, of course, tears and shock are evident as we talk about those who we know of or have heard of who died so young - our age – and we know that, even though when we get together we may feel like we are back in high school, the reality is that we are not. Then, of course, the talk gets around to our children (and grandchildren!). Naturally, these aspects of our middle-aged lives influence our feelings about our children and their departures. Naturally, the departures of our children have an influence on these other aspects of our lives. As I began this section with Judith Viorst’s thoughts, I will end it with something she says that I believe sums up things quite effectively, "We will mourn the loss of others. But we are also going to mourn the loss of our selves." (265).

Now, with a little background and understanding of the empty nest, let’s see how some of the parents who responded to my questionnaire experienced this transition.

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Chapter Three


So how do mothers feel about their empty nests? We have seen some conflicting reports from the experts. Now, I believe, it is important to hear what some mothers, themselves, have to say. These women are respondents to the questionnaire that I sent out several months ago. They are real women who voluntarily chose to share their feelings and stories with me. Some of these women are friends or acquaintances of mine and some I have never met and have no idea who they are or who passed the questionnaire on to them. Since I don’t know all of the respondents, I cannot make any generalizations in regard to their ethnic, cultural or economic backgrounds. They all, however, felt strongly enough about this issue to take the time to put their stories on paper and share their experiences. So let’s find out how these mothers feel about their empty nests.

I am not using all responses from all respondents nor am I using all questions in the questionnaire. I chose a sampling of the questions and responses based on the answers that I felt were most insightful, relevant and responsive to the questions. I also wanted to include any responses which were markedly different from most of the others. And since not everyone answered every question or some answers were simply "yes" or "no," these facts limited the responses I choose.

In Their Own Words

Were you looking forward to your children leaving?

"Not really, but one realizes your children must leave home and live full, healthy lives separate from their parents." (Gina, 65, Calgary, Alberta).

"I wanted to see them self-sufficient and on their own – but I wasn’t ready for them both to move away in the same summer. All of a sudden my purpose in life was over. I feel like raising my sons was the most important thing I ever did." (Helen, 51, Clinton Township, Michigan).

"If I’m being honest, I really did look forward to the kids leaving for school. I wanted to pursue personal goals and felt, with the kids gone, I would finally have the time to devote to getting my own degree." (Donna, 49, Clinton Township, Michigan).

"Not really. Though there were plenty of times we didn’t see eye to eye on things, I still enjoyed having them around." (Jackie, 52, Rochester Hills, Michigan).

"NOOOOOOOOOO – I dread it and wish they were still here!" (Amy, 53, Michigan).

"No. I didn’t care if any of them ever left, but knew they each had to choose their own life, so never tried to influence their decisions." (Kris, 61, Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan).

"Not really. Although intellectually you know this is how it’s supposed to go, emotionally I wasn’t as ready as I thought." (Linda, 47, Detroit, Michigan).

"I was very hesitant for my Adam to leave (I was not sure how he would do on his own and I feel I was overprotective, nervous, anxious)., however I felt very different when Courtney was ready to go. I was very ready for her to go because I was sure she was ready to begin her college experience." (Cindy, 45, Warren, Michigan).


These responses show a range of feelings as these women prepared for their children’s departures. Only one, however, was actually looking forward to them leaving. It seems that mothers want their children to live their own lives and become independent - that this is the ultimate goal of successfully raising children. However, it appears that mothers do not look forward to relinquishing their roles or their children. I find it interesting, too, to note that several of the responses began with the words, "not really." It sounds to me, that by using that expression, these women, perhaps, thought that they should be looking forward to this separation although they were now admitting that they didn’t really feel that way.


How did you THINK you would feel being an empty nester?

"I thought it would be boring with not too much to do. We had been so involved with our daughter I couldn’t imagine what would fill the time." (Fay, 53, Shelby Township, Michigan).

"I thought I would be free from the worry of getting them raised, through school and on their own. Now I would finally have a clean house and time for me." (Helen).

"I knew I would miss the children, because I always noticed when one was gone, even for a day or two." (Kris).

"I imagined I would relish the solitude and quiet and the absence of interruptions in my schedule. But I knew I would miss them being around." (Linda).

"Never really thought about it until a couple of years ago and it hit me that I’m alone with no kids here." (Elaine, 45, St. Clair Shores, Michigan).


Many mothers think about life without their children before the children actually leave. Boredom, solitude, free time, a sense of relief and a clean house all crossed the minds of these mothers who imagined life without their children. The only thing that I could think about as I prepared for the kids to leave was how much I would miss them. Elaine’s response of not thinking about her children leaving beforehand does not seem to be typical but her phrase "a couple of years ago and it hit me" almost makes me believe that she was not allowing herself to think of it earlier.


How did you ACTUALLY feel once all of your children were gone?

"Once my last child left home I felt truly alone and lost. I didn’t know what to do with myself other than work. The things that I had automatically done when she was home were now no longer necessary. I found I had a lot of time on my hands with nothing to do." (Brenda).

"It was a ‘tentative’ feeling. I kept waiting to feel really bad. I knew I would be fine the first time I went in the basement to do the laundry. I looked around and saw I only had a few loads to do and thought life just got a little easier." (Fay).

"I actually feel accomplished and glad for them to be experiencing new people, places and learning about their chosen future careers." (Cindy).

"When my oldest child first left, I missed him terribly. I wanted to call him everyday but restrained myself. However, whenever my husband said, ‘I need to phone Doug for _____’, I would say ‘I’ll call for you.’ I wanted to hear his voice but I also wanted to have a good reason for calling him. I even told him that he could move back home if things didn’t turn out the way he planned . . .but he never did. When my youngest child left, he was leaving because he was getting married and I guess I felt that he had someone to look after him. So, this was not as traumatic for me." (Gina).

"When they went away to college, I missed the involvement in their lives – going to watch them in their sports events and involvement in school activities. They both, however, went to colleges that were within one and a half hours driving time from home so this factor helped. We went to see them fairly frequently and enjoyed going to football games from their schools. In many ways my husband and I were happy to have some of our own freedom back – we went to our cottage on weekends (this was difficult to do when they were in high school because of sports). It was also a relief to not have to stay up waiting for them to get home when they went out on weekends. This recent move of my daughter’s (to Utah) has been much more difficult though, because the distance is so far and could be potentially permanent. We call and write frequently, but it’s just not the same. It’s really hard to get a real idea of how she’s doing over the phone." (Jackie).

"Terrible. The house was and is still far too quiet. I miss the youthful enthusiasm and multiple conversations." (Kris).


Except for Cindy’s response, the one theme that is evident in all of these responses is a sense of loss. Even though Fay was delighted to have her chores simplified and she indicates she never seemed to feel as bad as she thought she would, I can certainly identify with her "tentative" feeling – it’s as if something isn’t quite as it should be and you’re waiting for a sense of normalcy to return to your life. Kris’s response, I think, points out that the old normalcy of life will never return.


Did you feel surprised or guilty over your feelings when you children left?

"I guess I felt a little guilty that my husband and I were actually having more time to spend together." (Jackie).

"I was mildly surprised at the aloneness that happens." (Linda).

"Neither – just empty." (Amy).

"I felt guilty that I didn’t miss them more. I know my husband missed the kids probably more than I did." (Fay).

"No, they are aware that I am glad they are gone . . .I tell them often." (Cindy).

"Well, I guess I felt a little guilty but was also looking forward to getting on with my own life." (Irene).


This was a question left blank or answered with a brief "no" by a number of respondents. Most of those who did respond admitted to some feelings of guilt, which was one of the feelings that I was surprised that I felt. I think this may be that we mothers are so used to the "busy-ness" of life with children and everything that surrounds a full house that, while anticipating missing our children, we don’t consider how much easier, less hectic and simple our lives become, not to mention how much cleaner our houses become. When the kids leave and we realize that we enjoy these things we often feel surprised or guilty – after all weren’t we going to miss our children rather than enjoy the fact that they are gone? Weren’t we going to have a harder time adjusting to life without them? I don’t think guilt was something that we were prepared to feel and that, in itself, is surprising.


Did you overeat, cry, withdraw or have any other negative physical, emotional or social reactions to becoming an empty nester?

"Cry a lot – especially after my son moved out of state –when he got married it actually felt as if my heart physically broke in two – I could feel it – sounds crazy, huh? When my daughter moved out I cried – but we still talk almost every day and see each other frequently." (Amy).

"I cried for two weeks, almost to the point of making myself sick. You would have thought the child had died. I actually drove her to Jackson State University in Mississippi and cried all the way back to Michigan. Out of habit I would go into her room at night to check on her just to remember she’s not here and I would sit and cry. I’d turn on a show we watched together, get ready to call her to let her know it was on, only to realize she’s not there. I’d sit and cry. I’d go to the grocery store, start picking up things that only she ate and realized I no longer needed to buy them and leave the store in tears. I truly was running myself crazy." (Brenda).

"I did get a bit anxious when Courtney was about to leave one day and began smoking after quitting for about 5 years. My husband, in turn, did the same (we are quitting soon). We cried a lot when we dropped Adam off the first time but only her dad sobbed when we left her. Courtney and I had a mother-daughter evening where I got my tears out prior to her moving to school." (Cindy).

"Sometimes when I look at those clean bedrooms, I cry." (Helen).

"I’ve had all those reactions. Crying alone at night or when something/someone reminds me of one of the kids or talking to them on the phone. And despite all this excess time on my hands, I did little in extra activities." (Linda).

"I think I did all of the above to a certain extent and don’t know if some of it is related to menopause or the move." (Jackie).


Well, there seems to be no doubt that crying is the major reaction to this event. Whether in sadness or loneliness or as a release, many tears have fallen over many children who have left home.


What did you do to cope with or adjust to your empty nest?

"I realized I had to make my home mine and mine alone. I started by taking her bedroom apart; my daughter had two beds in her room, a full size bed and a twin bed. The full size bed was for her 250 stuffed animals which were the first things to go. I took the bed down and gave the bed and stuffed animals away. After doing that I found I had a lot of space in that room. So I decided to make that room my computer room. After moving the furniture around in my house I found room to do a lot of things just for me that I had always wanted to do. I began to enjoy going shopping alone, now it was for me. I had no one to argue with about what I chose – it was too old fashioned. If I liked it, I bought it." (Brenda).

"I took up quilt making to ease my mind." (Elaine).

"I made sure we always had activities planned, even if it was to just go to the movies every Friday. We like to travel. My husband bought a 1970 Chevelle. Now his summer is filled with activities surrounding his car. He goes to clubs, shows and trips. We do some of these activities together and sometimes we go our separate ways for the evening." (Fay).

"Try to see the kids as often as I can and that’s about it!" (Amy).

"We are relaxing after many years of attending high school sports events, watching movies, reading more and enjoying each other." (Cindy).

"We moved the year before our children left and now try to spend a lot of time with nieces and nephews who live right in the neighborhood. Sometimes helping out my brother or sister by taking kids to soccer games, etc." (Helen).

"I’m still trying to cope with my daughter’s move to Utah. Her being away at college seemed so easy compared to this. I’m busy most of the time – working full time and keeping up with our house and cottage. My mom is also quite elderly now, though still able to live on her own. I try to visit and help her out more now." (Jackie).

"Got busy with things I didn’t have time for when they were at home, like more sewing, traveling, gardening and my six grandchildren." (Irene).

"I’m still working as a teacher so am very, very busy. I would love to retire but feel that it is to my benefit, financially, to stay a little longer. However, as much as I would like to be away from my job, I don’t look forward to facing life as "two retired folks." Volunteering, etc. gets people out of the house, but I miss the ‘life’ my house had in past years."(Kris).

"My husband and I traveled and we did some volunteer work." (Marie, 80, Clinton Township, Michigan).


It appears that, for the most part, these mothers are trying to fill their time with positive and fulfilling endeavors, each in her own way. For Brenda, the initial, therapeutic project of cleaning out her daughter’s room became much more than that – a major event in not only accepting her daughter’s absence from her home, but also symbolic of their new lives. In getting rid of her daughter’s bed and stuffed animals and turning the room into her own computer room, Brenda seemed to acknowledge that her daughter was no longer her little child and that Brenda now needed to begin her new life, too. Mothers, so often, put their wants and needs aside as they raise their children. A number of these women are now doing things for themselves that they could not do before and they find that they are enjoying themselves. Others, though, seem to be having a more difficult time looking at this time of their lives in a positive way and at their futures, without children, as meaningful and rewarding. The mourning period that each of these mothers experiences seems to be quite individualized. As for myself, my husband and I find that we still enjoy attending high school sporting events, either at our children’s former high schools or watching the children of friends compete. The major difference is that we do it when and because we want to – not because we have to – and, while we want "our" teams to win, it is much more fun and enjoyable to watch the games without the emotional attachment of having one of our children involved. We also have found that we enjoy planning our dinners around what we want to eat and trying new recipes that appeal to us rather than having to please children whose tastes are not the same as ours. We also would like to travel more but that will have to wait until college tuitions are no longer in the picture.


What positive reactions did you have to becoming an empty nester?

"A little less stress and I am experiencing a great deal of pride in how the kids are coping with life on their own --- which I guess really is a positive sign on the way they were raised." (Amy).

"I found that I had more leisure time. I could actually pick up a book and read it without having to answer a dozen questions because she was feeling left out. I realized how much attention this child had required when she was at home. She had to have my undivided attention all the time if she had nothing she was really involved with. I found I like the quietness in my house." (Brenda).

"I feel that I was less stressed as I seemed to always be involved. Once they had moved away from home I was not aware of their worries, etc. and because they were boys they did not call me to tell me their troubles." (Gina).

"Definitely more leisure time. If I don’t feel like cooking – I don’t. If I sleep ‘til noon – so what. If I want to meet friends for dinner or shopping I don’t have to worry – I just do it." (Helen).

"We enjoy not having to be pinned down to the kids schedules – we have more time to do things we enjoy." (Jackie).

"My job has lots of stress so that’s worse than ever. I do have less mess, less laundry and less reason to be in a rush to get home. No more working around others’ schedules. That should be a positive but it was one of the things, I felt, that kept me in close touch with the world and kept ‘old age’ from setting in." (Kris).

"Food shopping is a lot less complicated. I don’t have to remember who likes/wants what. Also the house stays cleaner for a longer time." (Linda).


Less stress and more leisure time seem to be the most positive reactions that these mothers have toward their empty nests. Only Amy mentioned the pride that she had in her children’s accomplishments which seems to be to be an emotional positive that the other mothers overlooked. They focused more on the physical aspects of the empty nest. And Kris gave a different slant to the whole picture by acknowledging assumed benefits to the empty nest which actually affected her in a negative way.


Do you feel, overall, that becoming an empty nester has been a positive experience?

"If I were just ten years younger – I would start all over again!" (Amy).

"It has been a very positive experience. I found out that I have a life of my own and it’s great." (Brenda).

" Yes it has been very positive. I think it is much more satisfying when you have children that lead happy, successful lives. It makes you feel like you have won at the game of life." (Fay).

"Not quite yet – but I can see it from here. The better they do on their own – I feel like it will be OK." (Helen).

"Overall, I believe becoming an empty-nester has been very positive. I am finally pursuing my own interests, have gotten my degree, have stated working at a job I truly enjoy and am considering going on for a master’s degree. It’s doubtful I would have done any of these things if the kids were still at home and needed my attention. I also believe that a parent’s main job is to prepare her children to become independent adults, so I was ready to let them go and curious to see how good a job I’d done. They both seem to have flourished, and with the time I have gained in their absence, so have I." (Donna).

"Looking back, I think the college empty nest experience was positive, especially in comparison to the present experience of a child moving out of state." (Jackie).

"Not for me. I don’t think it has had as much impact on my husband, It’s not something I dwell on, but am always aware they are gone. I still speak in terms of children ‘coming home’ when they visit. All have keys." (Kris).

"Not yet. It’s still early though and I am trying to get used to it but I’m sure I will always miss them around the house. I am the oldest of 10, so a quiet house is eerie." (Linda).

"No, I continue to miss my child even though she is 30 years old. We are very close." (Olivia, 56, Rochester, Michigan).


Time and the success of the children is a theme in a number of the responses to this question. It is too early for some of these mothers to see this as a positive experience, overall. However, they also say that, in time, they feel that it will be. I particularly like Helen’s phrase "I can see it from here." Donna seems truly to have flourished during this stage of her life and her outlook is very upbeat. There are still a couple of mothers, though, who are having a difficult time being optimistic during this transition.



What do you think would have made the transition easier?

"I don’t know if I could have made it easier. We all become involved in our children’s lives if we really care about them. But you will find that there is life after children." (Brenda).

"If I had a career or hobby or ‘life’ of my own, I wouldn’t feel to misplaced now." (Helen).

"I was prepared." (Irene).


This question, with the above few exceptions, was either left blank or simply answered – "nothing." I concur. I knew this was coming. I went back to school. I planned on a new hobby. I did what I thought I could to make the transition easier. But I found out that this is not an easy transition. One can plan to fill one’s time and anticipate enjoying one’s solitude and clean house but there is no adequate preparation for the emptiness in one’s heart. Just as I was amazed after the births of my children at the depth of feeling and love I had in me – emotions that I never knew existed within me and wasn’t prepared for – now I was just as unprepared for the void that existed within me. Not anything I could concretely put my finger on, but just a hollow feeling that I was not prepared for, even as I seem to be adjusting to this new life.


What was the most difficult adjustment?

"Not being able to see them – or be near them"(Amy).

"The most difficult adjustment was the quietness – no longer rushing to make sure that you are always one step ahead of them." (Brenda).

"The most difficult adjustment is not talking to Courtney. We are very close and I miss our laughing and hugs from her (tear). . . .also, the post office line to mail packages." (Cindy).

"Adjusting to the fact that I did not speak with them everyday. They now had separate lives from their parents and that I had to respect that." (Gina).

"I need to be needed. My children and their grandpa all depended on me. Now nobody ‘needs’ me." (Helen).

"Feeling guilty." (Irene).

"I missed each voice each day, hollering, ‘I’m home’. I missed the music that filled the house, the conversation and news - and fun – of stories from work or school. I missed the friends of children that dropped in every day. Five children create a lot of action." (Kris).

"Not having anyone to talk to/yell at or send to the store for stuff. Not being involved in their everyday life, the routine things we do." (Linda).

"We missed seeing our first grandson often because they lived in Canada." (Marie).

"Not being able to shop with my daughter, finding something to take the place of my daughter’s dance class." (Olivia).


Many of the respondents did not answer this question. Although they worded it differently, what comes across in the responses here, is that these mothers missed the contact with their children that they became used to over the previous eighteen plus years. Nothing major – just the day-to-day interaction with their children. Helen, though, mentioned her difficulty with the emotional adjustment of the empty nest; she feels that her need to be needed no longer exists.



What was easier than you expected?

"Cleaning out her room and getting rid of what I consider junk. I really didn’t feel like I was throwing out my child." (Brenda).

"Everything overall." (Elaine).


Again, another question that went largely unanswered. Is it because nothing was easier than expected? Were these mothers, most of whom earlier stated they were not looking forward to their children leaving, finding that, indeed, having an empty house was a difficult adjustment to make? I guess we can only surmise, as they are currently going through or recalling how they felt, that this was not easy for them.


How is your relationship with your children?

"I believe it is the same with my son – we always had a good relationship. My daughter and I have a much improved relationship since she moved. Maybe I was smothering her." (Amy).

"We are now friends on an adult level. Now they are married with children – I really was right and they appreciate a lot of things that we fought about." (Brenda).

"Better. We have a lot more to talk about." (Elaine).

"We have a good relationship with both of our married children. We have our own lives and friends so we don’t only rely on them for friendship and entertainment." (Fay).

"The relationship with our kids is, in a word, different. It is soooo easy to want to treat them as kids, telling them what to do, but I think getting past that and realizing that they are adults and able to do things on their own will get easier." (Cindy).

"Since they have left home, they do come to visit often and they are nice to visit with. So I would consider that the relationship with them is better." (Gina).

"Much better. When they call to talk they are actually interested in what’s new with me and dad. And when they visit, they talk and visit instead of ‘holing up’ in their rooms." (Helen).

"We still keep in close contact, but it sometimes seems a little superficial. Hard to get down to ‘real’ conversation in a brief visit or phone call." (Jackie).

"We’ve always had a great relationship. I’ve always tried to be there for support and solutions. Nothing has changed. They still call for advice and help. I’ve come to realize they would do anything for me, are always here to help. I know how lucky I am." (Kris).

"It is different. There is so much more going on in their lives that I know nothing about; their friends, classes, teachers, activities. There are people who now know them better than me. Less time together naturally leads to less talking . . .or less intimate talking – more superficial stuff." (Linda).


Since most of the mothers indicate that their relationships with their children are, at least, as good or better than when they were at home, one could conclude that this is, indeed, a positive experience for everyone. As Amy noted, maybe we were "smothering" our children while they were still at home. If the relationships have improved, then why are many of the mothers still unhappy? Maybe, despite the improved relationship, there is still something missing for these mothers.

A couple of the respondents alluded to the fact that their conversations with their children were more superficial and less intimate. Is this an attempt, by the children, to distance themselves, emotionally, while forging their own identities? Or is it just a simple case of less time – less talk? Or could it be that, even with the wonders of modern technology, personal conversations are really not that personal via phone or e-mail?


What advice would you give other parents facing an empty nest?

"Love them while they are under your roof and respect them enough to make their own decisions once they leave." (Amy).

"Look forward to finding out that you are a real person with likes and dislikes." (Brenda).

"Save money and keep working in some way or another, talk to others who are going through the same thing. I think talking to my friends who are going through it, or who have, has been my saving grace. I work with a few others who have given me good advice as to how to deal with various issues concerning ‘college life’." (Cindy).

"Plan for this event in your life and make sure you have plenty to do to fill the void in your daily life. Remember that they are now adults and live separate lives from you even though the family ties are strong." (Gina).

"Get a hobby. Renew old friendships. Fall in love again with our spouse – like when you were a ‘couple’." (Helen).

"For parents who face the prospect of becoming empty-nesters, I think the best advice I could give them is to celebrate their new-found freedom from the day-to-day responsibilities of child-rearing by examining what interests in their lives they’ve put on the back burner while their time was devoted to their children and then giving themselves permission to actively pursue those things." (Donna).

"Guess I’m not a good one to be giving advice. I’d say ‘Let your children live their own lives, give advice but let them make the final decisions. Take life as it comes. Stay close. Don’t make children feel guilty for moving away. You both have to move one. Life is ever-changing. Make the best of each day’." (Kris).

"Everyone will handle it differently and feelings are neither good nor bad, they just are." (Linda).

"Once your children leave home they are still you children but they are also adults with lives of their own and I think the best way is to be the best of friends with them instead of thinking of them always as children." (Marie).

"Know that it’s coming, children are not children forever. Develop a hobby not including your child." (Olivia).


I think these are all good pieces of advice. And I think that most mothers realize that their children must grow up and move on. Parents, I believe, know that they should plan to make certain changes in their lifestyles. It is wise to consider new hobbies or renew old interests to fill their time. These are the easy things to plan for because, certainly, with everything else being equal, there will be more free time. So the advice for filling your time is tried and true. The two pieces of advice that struck me the most were Cindy’s and Linda’s.

Cindy mentions talking to others who are going through the same thing. I found that, absolutely, talking to other empty nesters is a real coping mechanism. Seeing that other mothers are experiencing a range of feelings, including some that you may be facing, is somewhat of a comfort. Verbalizing your feelings to others who have been through – and survived – or who are currently going through this transition in life allows you to sort things out and deal with the situation in a healthy manner.

Linda’s advice, though, really touched me. How true. As we have seen from this small sampling of mothers, even though there may be certain feelings that dominate many of the answers, there were also different points of view that these women expressed. Everyone handled this in her own way – some had an easier time and others faced their empty nests with more difficulty. But the feelings of every one of these mothers are sincere, or in Linda’s words, they "just are."


Add anything else that you would like . . . to share about this transition phase of your life.

"I lived my children’s lives for so long that I actually thought their lives were mine. But after the last child left I found that I had a life waiting to be lived. It’s great – now when they call and talk about coming home to visit I ask why and for how long. I can’t wait for them to leave. They interfere with my life. It’s funny getting messages from them, ‘mama, where are you – and why didn’t you let me know you were going out. Call me when you get back so that I’ll know you’re all right.’ From my boys I get, ‘who is he? And what do you really know about him?’ The roles have reversed. It’s funny – and I give them the answers they used to give me." (Brenda).

"I think when I was raising my boys was the best part of my life. I loved being the mom and staying home with them. But they have turned into two interesting, funny, capable young men and I really am proud to have been a part of that." (Helen).

"I guess all I’d like to add is that I think that each phase of life is there for a reason – and that is to get us ready for the next phase. We have to take the good and bad from each phase and learn from it so that we can grow to be ready for what is yet to come." (Jackie).

"I’d like to mention that, as much as the children wanted to move on, they also regretted leaving. We had very tearful partings though we knew we would continue to see each other. I felt pretty much the same when I left home to marry. I know many parents who look forward to their children leaving home, and think they must have missed something in their life together. As a parent, I only want that my children be independent, contributing members of society and relatively happy. But I want them to know they can always count on me and, in a pinch, they can always come ‘home’." (Kris).

"Sometimes I compare the following: when they were born, you knew every inch of their body and everything that went on I their lives. Little by little the outside world crashes in and you are slowly pushed aside until you know just the barest of facts sometimes. Even though that’s how it’s supposed to go, this is something you created and your connection is being usurped. How can you not feel cheated and sad?" (Linda).

"Leaving the nest is part of the ‘Circle of Life’ as in the Disney movie. Remember Simba was angry when his father died and would not take his place as King until his father spoke to him thru his heart and said ‘Time to take your place in the circle of life.’ It is very hard for both parents and children to leave the nest. This is not the parents’ happiest time of life, but we must let go and let our children take their place in the circle. My husband and I always will miss the children . . .but we will always be in their hearts." (Nancy, 71, Farmington Hills, Michigan).


We’ve heard from a small sample of mothers who candidly shared their feelings about their experiences with the empty nest. These women seemed to use this forum to reveal their true sentiments and feelings about this topic. There seems to be no doubt that the emotions communicated by these mothers were honest, heartfelt and genuine. That the daily routines of life became easier for most is obvious. The difficulty in handling the emotions, on the other hand, ranged from one extreme to the other. A couple of the respondents had, and continue to have, a difficult time in adjusting to this transition in their lives and their mourning period continues, even though, objectively they recognize that this is the normal progression of life and their children are doing well and their relationships have improved. Another mother looked forward to this new lifestyle with eagerness and another one adjusted rather quickly. Most of the other mothers fell somewhere in between and though they appreciate the fact that their lives are easier and they are proud of their children’s accomplishments, they still feel that something is missing. However, for those who have been living in an empty nest for awhile they see it in a positive light and most of the others who are new to this feel, as Helen put it, "not quite yet – but I can see it from here."

I found a passage from Patricia Gottlieb Shapiro’s book, My Turn – Women’s Search for Self After the Children Leave, which echoed something that Cindy mentioned in one of her responses. "Talk holds women’s friendships together. Through talking, we air our fears and our frustrations; we learn we are not alone and that our experiences are normal. Talking gives us the support we need to mobilize ourselves and the courage to move on with our lives." (156). In the written responses I received from these mothers, I could imagine a group of friends sitting around and speaking the words that are written here. Theirs are words of discouragement, sorrow, pleasure, hope, understanding and encouragement and I can see how hearing other people’s stories and experiences can help one get through this period. As I was reading these answers I felt growing acceptance for my own feelings because I saw that everyone was experiencing this transition in her own way, with some similarities . . . lots of tears . . . and many differences.

I found one more passage in Shapiro’s book that I imagine she would have written in response to the last question on this questionnaire and I want to include it here because, as I mentioned in the beginning of this chapter, I find this to be insightful and relevant to this subject. "As mothers of young adult children, we often wonder: What can I give my children now? When they were younger it was easier: We’d bake their favorite cookies, sew their Halloween costume or help them with a school project. We had concrete ways to show our love. Now, we are at a different stage: We have moved beyond our daily caretaking roles. And our relationships have grown more complex. The best gift we can give our children as young adults is to live our own lives fully. When we donate time to our favorite charity, when we run to a friend in need, when we save a weekend at the beach for our husband – we show our sons and daughters that we value ourselves as women. Not through lecturing, not through preaching, but through living, we become models for our children. That’s the only gift we can give them – and in turn, honor ourselves." (156).

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Chapter Four


In the previous chapter we discovered how some mothers felt about their empty nest experiences. Many of the responses were heart-felt and detailed. As I had mentioned in the Preface, the fathers’ responses (or lack of) were another matter. Although as many questionnaires were initially sent to fathers as mothers, the return rate and content were vastly different. Most fathers did not respond – even if their wives did. In fact, other than my own husband, none of the other fathers who returned the questionnaire were spouses of the mothers who replied. And most of the men’s responses were much shorter in comparison to the mothers’ responses. Here’s what some dads had to say.

In Their Own Words

Were you looking forward to your children leaving?

"NO . . . for my sake. BUT I knew this was the best thing for them in order to prepare them for the future and I honestly believe that going away to college is a great life learning experience." (Andy, 49, Clinton Township, Michigan).

"No, not at all." (Bill, 51, Clinton Township, Michigan).

"Yes. I was looking to it with glee. Less phone calls, less messy house, more room, a freed-up bedroom." (Dave, 63, Beverly Hills, Michigan).

"I think we foresaw some opportunities to do things ourselves, but we worried about their well being." (Edward, 57, Grosse Ile, Michigan).


In this first question, we see that at least one father was definitely looking forward to the departure of his children. Edward was a little more guarded in his views. He was concerned about the welfare of his children but seemed to be anticipating the positive aspects of having an empty nest. The other fathers indicated that they were not looking forward to their children’s departure. Several of them simply answered "no" without any further explanation.


How did you THINK you would feel being an empty nester?

"Sad and lost . . .and I was!!" (Andy).

"A bit lonely and somewhat disconnected from their lives." (Bill).

"More freedom and less responsibilities." (Fred, 56, Northville, Michigan).

"I thought I would be glad not to have to haggle over family ‘rules’ and such." (Edward).


Those who answered this question were evenly divided between those who thought they would be sad and miss their offspring and those who anticipated a happier, easier lifestyle.


How did you ACTUALLY feel once all of your children were gone?

"Just as I knew I would." (Andy).

"It’s still a bit early to assess, but I have felt lonesome at times. Not disconnected, though, because we communicate frequently." (Bill).

"Glad for their maturing and adjusting to college. Proud of their accomplishments. Happy to share their experiences. Understanding of their dealing with a tough scholastic environment." (Carl, Troy, Michigan).

"I missed their company. There were a great distraction." (Edward).

"I miss them." (Fred).


Other than Carl, these fathers found that they did miss their children. A couple of them anticipated that they would. I find it interesting, though, that two of the fathers who indicated that they actually missed their children once they were gone, did not necessarily expect to feel this way. Their anticipatory thoughts of not having children around did not focus on the emotional void that, in fact, did occur.


Did you feel surprised or guilty over your feelings when you children left?

"I believe I was surprised to find that I had needed them." (Edward).


Except for Edward, not one father answered this in the affirmative. I don’t know if it is because fathers reacted as they thought they would, so they weren’t surprised. I don’t know if it is because fathers do not experience the feelings of guilt that motherhood often carries with it. I don’t know if it is because fathers refuse to acknowledge these feelings. In any case, this was not an issue for fathers.


Did you overeat, cry, withdraw or have any other negative physical, emotional or social reactions to becoming an empty nester?

"Lots of tears – most without anybody else ever know about them!! I think overeating as well – I have gained six pounds since my daughter left!" (Andy).

"There were tears when we said good-bye at college, but nothing beyond that." (Bill).

"None. I can walk around in my shorts without being yelled at." (Dave).

"My wife was often quite upset which, of course, bothered me." (Edward).


Other than Andy and Bill, to a lesser degree, none of the fathers claim to experience any of these reactions. I find two things interesting in these answers. Andy said he shed a lot of tears without anyone knowing about it, which makes me wonder if some other fathers did some crying but are not letting anyone know about it. And Edward chose to answer this question based on his wife’s reaction rather than his own.


What did you do to cope with or adjust to your empty nest?

"I actually became more focused on making things work out with my spouse [. . .]I am reading more and listening to more music that I like – jazz, blues – music the kids were not crazy about!" (Andy).

"My job can consume as much time as I let it; I have found that I am working longer hours than when the children were home. I don’t really view this as a coping mechanism." (Bill).

"Wrong concept. No coping mechanism was needed but with my free time I read more and watch more uninterrupted sports on TV." (Dave).

"I had always been busy at home with my own activities, so I think I just spent more time on the usual projects." (Edward).

"Work." (Fred).


These fathers seemed pretty content to fill their time with their usual activities – only more so. This suggests to me that, unlike the mothers, fathers’ lives were not as intertwined with their children’s lives. Perhaps, because a father’s primary role was that of breadwinner – even if the mother worked – and mother’s primary role was that of nurturer, the fathers had less adjusting to do than the mothers. They still went to work every day and came home to read or watch TV. Mothers, on the other hand, either didn’t work outside the home, worked part-time or even worked full-time but then came home to "tend" the kids and take care of the house. No doubt, many mothers are enjoying more reading or TV time, too, but they appear to also be more distressed by the children’s leaving.


What positive reactions did you have to becoming an empty nester?

"More leisure time in that there were not the ‘events’ to attend – sports, school ceremonies, plays, etc. However I LIKED those things so more leisure time wasn’t necessarily that ‘less stressful’. I think, in some ways, I feel more stress because they are out of the ‘nest’ and I can’t take care of them!" (Andy).

"Less stress in the sense that I no longer had to worry about adjusting my schedule to fit the activities of the children. Also, I no longer worry about late nights out or driving long distances, etc. That is out of my control (and my immediate sight) when they are away at school." (Bill).

"More free time. Fewer calls to answer. Less money to giver her. Less packing her bags and driving her." (Dave).

"I realized (for the first time in years). that I was in charge of my life." (Edward).

"The fewer the children at home, the better the relationship with spouse." (Fred).


The fathers who responded to this question, for the most part, enjoyed the positive effects of the empty nest. I found rather interesting the contrast in Andy’s and Bill’s answers. They both dealt with the same thing – the kids are gone and out of my "control" so to speak – for Bill this made his life less stressful and for Andy it was just the opposite.


Do you feel, overall, that becoming an empty nester has been a positive experience?

"Not sure yet. I think it is another phase or ‘passage’ in my life. I miss the kids horribly but I know they are at a wonderful college and they are both growing and maturing into stronger young adults who will one day make significant contributions to society [. . .] For that I am happy and feel ‘positive’. It remains to be seen what happens with me [. . .] I have loved each stage of my kids’ lives and I think this is one that, while sad in some respects, is also very rewarding." (Andy).

"I would say it’s positive because I think it’s normal for family members to become more autonomous at this stage in our respective lives. I miss the kids when they’re gone but think that our relationship is as strong, maybe stronger, than before they left for college." (Bill).

"Yes, I have finished my duties as daily supervisor and mentor." (Dave).

"I do not wish they would move back in." (Edward).

"The transition wasn’t difficult. It was easy." (Fred).


While Andy and Bill both relate that they miss their children, they both see this as a positive progression in the life cycle. They both seem to recognize the bitter and sweet sides of this transition. The other fathers, however, don’t appear to feel the same way. They definitely seem to be very delighted in this new stage of their lives. The rest of the respondents answered "yes" to this question.


What do you think would have made the transition easier?

"Perhaps more ‘planning’ on my part and not avoiding thinking about them leaving for school. However, I think this is just something we have to go through as parents and that it can be as positive or negative as one makes it!" (Andy).

"I really don’t know. I’m, not sure it’s something that can be prepared for." (Bill).

"More communication of feelings between my wife and me." (Edward).


Generally the fathers did not answer this question. The only suggestions were preparing oneself by thinking about and communicating their feelings. Because most of the fathers who responded didn’t seem to think the transition was difficult, it makes sense that they would not have an answer for this question. It didn’t need to be easier for most of them.


What was the most difficult adjustment?

"Not having the kids PHYSICALLY here." (Andy).

"I miss the impromptu laughing, goofing around and undirected conversation that we had around the house when the kids were here. I also miss going to their school activities (sporting events, plays, teacher conferences, the whole package)." (Bill).

"Spending more time on the phone." (Carl).

"With my wife." (Edward).

What was easier than you expected?

"Improving the relationship with my spouse." (Andy).

"Not thinking or worrying on Friday and Saturday nights about what they are doing or with whom or when they’ll be home. I sleep pretty well on weekends." (Bill).

"Saying good-bye." (Dave).

"I maintained good relations with them as adults." (Edward).


There is absolutely no commonality of feelings among the fathers in the responses to both of these questions. Actually, there is one thing I find interesting. Edward and Andy had opposite reactions to their relationships with their spouses and both of them found that adjusting to their empty nests also meant readjusting their marital relationships.


How is your relationship with your children?

"Probably better when they are home since I ‘baby’ and ‘spoil’ them – ha-ha! In many ways it is much the same. I care about them and love them just as before. I just miss them more now!" (Andy).

"At least as good, maybe better. We communicate often (telephone, e-mail, instant messages). about meaningful things." (Bill).

"It is better. I am somewhat brighter in her eyes now that she is in college." (Dave).

"It was always quite good. It still is." (Edward).


All the parents - mothers and fathers – who responded to the questionnaire felt that their relationship with their children was the same or better than before. No one felt that their relationship had deteriorated since the children left home. Dave makes a good point – that now, presumably as his daughter becomes smarter, so does he. I’m sure that most people, when looking back on their lives, realize that, the older they get, the wiser their parents get. Dave is experiencing this already. I also noted that, in a previous question, Bill mentioned that what he misses most is the "impromptu laughing, goofing around and undirected conversation." In responding to this question, he says they communicate often about "meaningful things," which seems to reinforce his earlier comments. This is similar to what some of the mothers said regarding the lack of "real" or "intimate" conversation with their children.


What advice would you give other parents facing an empty nest?

"I do not give advice to other parents – I have a difficult enough time just being a parent myself. However, I think I would say ENJOY each phase of your child’s life and be there for them. It goes so fast and then they are ‘grown up’. See the empty nest as a challenge but see it as a positive, too. If you have done your job as a parent, you should be happy they are out of the ‘nest’ and becoming adults." (Andy).

"As I said earlier, I don’t think you can specifically prepare for an empty nest. I would only suggest that parents be as involved with their children as possible while they can. I think that will ensure that children will stay connected to their home, even they the nest is empty." (Bill).

"Help your children mature and accept responsibility as early as possible. Encourage participation in Boy or Girl Scouts, church activities or travel with friends." (Carl).

"Assume you have prepared her for the next stage, college, and enjoy the silence when there is no loud music." (Dave).

"Talk to each other about it." (Edward).


These fathers pretty much concur that parents must, in some way, be involved in their children’s lives while they are at home. "Enjoy," "be involved," "help" and "prepare" are the terms these fathers use in giving advice to other parents. It may not change how one ultimately handles an empty nest but this involvement seems to make a difference in the relationships and feelings fathers have with their adult children and their role in their children’s lives.


It is plain to see that these fathers, for the most part, are not nearly as affected by their children’s departures as the mothers who responded to the questionnaire. Overwhelmingly, these men did not respond in the detailed way that the mothers did. Is it because men are supposed to keep their feelings in check? Or because they truly did not experience the emotions that mothers felt as their children left? I don’t think we will know, although, there were some small indications that at least some fathers were more distressed than they would let on. One of the mothers, Fay, indicated that she thought her husband was more upset about his daughter’s departure than she was, however her husband did not respond to the questionnaire. And, in the men’s answers, one indicated that he did his crying in private and another said he missed his children more than he thought he would.

Not only was it difficult for me to elicit more responses from fathers, research on fathers’ reactions to the empty nest is virtually non-existent. I only found one dissertation from 1985 that addressed this issue with regard to fathers. The statistical conclusions in this paper cited greater satisfaction with marital relationships and work rather than how fathers feel about this stage in their lives. There were no books at all. The definitive word on the stages of men’s lives, The Season’s of a Man’s Life by Daniel Levinson, does not touch on the subject.

Gail Sheehy’s Understanding Men’s Passages at least touches on it. She even, perceptively, calls this brief section of her book, "Empty Heart," but only spends three paragraphs discussing the empty nest in relation to fathers. "Over and over again, I hear admissions of muffled anguish from men whose children are preparing to leave the nest. A computer programmer described being overwhelmed by emotions he had never felt before with such intensity: ‘I feel like I have a hole in my heart’." (163). I find this passage interesting

for two reasons. First, I was a little surprised to read that "over and over again" men have expressed anguish over their children’s departure. Sheehy is the only one to even mention emotional upset as being associated with fathers and if it is, in fact, true that fathers are expressing this anguish, why have we seen nothing else about it? Could the answer be in the next sentence? "Admissions of muffled anguish" – this phrase is consistent with the father who said he did his crying in private. Even in this enlightened day and age is it necessary for men to be stoic? Adams addresses this issue, too. Her interviews, although many with both parents present, really turned out to be interviews with mothers only. Fathers wandered in and out of the room and conversation. Adams concluded that men are still not comfortable talking about their feelings. (4).

Most of the articles I found on this subject that were written by men were of the humorous variety. I did, however, come across one very poignant article written by business/political/labor reporter, Bill Good. Good wrote "Home Alone" in September of 2000 as his house and daily life became vacated by his children. His touching memories and admissions of his mixed emotions at this time of his life were an unusual and welcome oasis in the desert of men’s feelings on this subject.

Sheehy continues talking about fathers, "The ‘empty nest syndrome’ has always been associated with mothers. But it is probably fair to say that fathers belonging to the current generation in middle life never had enough time with their children." (163). She then goes on to describe how fathers, busy with their careers, are just getting ready to spend time with their children when the children are vacating the nest. This suggests that fathers, then, are grieving over their belated need for their children rather than over the loss of their children, much like the story Harry Chapin recounts in his song, Cat’s in the Cradle.

My child arrived just the other day,
He came to the world in the usual way.
But there were planes to catch, and bills to pay.
He learned to walk while I was away.
And he was talking 'fore I knew it, and as he grew,
He'd say, "I'm gonna be like you, dad.
You know I'm gonna be like you."

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon,
Little boy blue and the man in the moon.
"When you coming home, dad?" "I don't know when,
But we'll get together then.
You know we'll have a good time then."

My son turned ten just the other day.
He said, "Thanks for the ball, dad, come on let's play.
Can you teach me to throw?" I said, "Not today,
I got a lot to do." He said, "That's ok."
And he walked away, but his smile never dimmed,
Said, "I'm gonna be like him, yeah.
You know I'm gonna be like him."

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon,
Little boy blue and the man in the moon.
"When you coming home, dad?" "I don't know when,
But we'll get together then.
You know we'll have a good time then."

Well, he came from college just the other day,
So much like a man I just had to say,
"Son, I'm proud of you. Can you sit for a while?"
He shook his head, and he said with a smile,
"What I'd really like, dad, is to borrow the car keys.
See you later. Can I have them please?"

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon,
Little boy blue and the man in the moon.
"When you coming home, son?" "I don't know when,
But we'll get together then, dad.
You know we'll have a good time then."

I've long since retired and my son's moved away.
I called him up just the other day.
I said, "I'd like to see you if you don't mind."
He said, "I'd love to, dad, if I could find the time.
You see, my new job's a hassle, and the kid's got the flu,
But it's sure nice talking to you, dad.
It's been sure nice talking to you."
And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me,
He'd grown up just like me.
My boy was just like me.

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon,
Little boy blue and the man in the moon.
"When you coming home, son?" "I don't know when,
But we'll get together then, dad.
You know we'll have a good time then."

Shapiro expresses the same sentiment, "For example, women told me that their husband missed their children’s presence now more than they did. The women felt relieved to give up their caregiving role and ready to move on with their own lives in the larger world. In contrast, their husbands, who played the more aggressive role as breadwinner for twenty-some years, wanted to ease up at work, spend more time with their families and develop closer relationships with their children. This, just as the youngest child moved out. These men now realized that they had missed their children’s growing up because they were working and wanted to make up for lost time, just as their children flew the coop." (36-37).

Bovey asks "What About the Men?" in her book. In this section she comments, "very little mention has been made of the father’s feelings when his child leaves home." She further says that, based on her interviews with women, the information she received suggests that, on the whole, there is not a great deal of difficulty for fathers when their children leave, "though certainly some are affected." I found this following passage to be rather interesting as well as consistent with the responses from my questionnaire and other research. "Some close questioning among friends who are fathers produced interesting results. When asked how they felt about their children leaving home, the consensus was that they were pleased to see them taking their place in the world, they were proud of their achievements, and they enjoyed it when they came back home for a visit. Yes, I said, that is fine, but how do you feel? [. . .] Gradually, though, some of these men dipped their toes in the water of their unexamined emotions." (67-68).

So, it appears that, yes, fathers are parents, too. However, based on a number of factors, their reactions to the empty nest stage of their lives differs from that of mothers. Bovey seems to sum it up well. "Undoubtedly fathers miss their children, some more than others, but their biological and emotional ties are different. This is a good thing for it creates a balance." (69).

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Chapter Six

My Story . . .Continued


It’s now been about six months since I became a full-fledged empty nester. During that time, besides going through this transition myself, I have researched the subject and read the stories of those parents who have answered my questionnaire. So unlike the beginning of my story, which was written prior to any research or other input, my story now has the benefit of outside influences as well as my own experiences.

Many thoughts overwhelm me as I continue to adjust to this time in my life. One of the things that strikes me and makes me feel much more accepting of my emotions is the fact that what I am feeling is OK. I, too, despite the way I knew I felt, was a victim of the myths and stereotypes of the empty nest syndrome. While I couldn’t help my feelings as this time of my life approached, after my brief encounter with that mother at my daughter’s orientation, I began to question myself. Was I too attached to my children? Was my behavior beyond normal? Were my feelings unhealthy and indicative of a major character flaw or an unhealthy relationship with my children? Should I breeze through this with barely more than a wave of my hand and an "oh I suppose I will miss them" dismissal of my children’s departure? Well, after all the research and all the responses, I find that the reaction to the empty nest is, indeed, individual. The fact that I am functioning quite well despite the sense of loss I feel, that I am enjoying certain aspects of the empty nest despite the void that is present, that I am adjusting to this stage of my life despite my earlier fears of how I would cope, indicate to me that everything is OK.

For me, the past six months have brought a few changes and a number of ups and downs. I have changed jobs for financial reasons. The cost of two college tuitions forced me to make a change. However, my new employment carries more responsibilities than any of the previous jobs I held while my children were at home and while my main job was that of their mother. This has caused me to realize that, perhaps it is my turn now. However, I don’t mean that in any negative sense. While I’ve enjoyed the various jobs I’ve held over the past twenty years, the major consideration in each one of them has been the fact that my family came before the job. This time it was different and it seemed strange during the interview not having to make my family priorities an issue. But I also learned from my previous jobs that, as long as one is a good employee, there is the opportunity for flexibility in employment whether for family or personal reasons and so I made sure that my new position allowed for a certain amount of that flexibility which I had become accustomed to over the years.

While the employment issue occupied my time and thoughts, it certainly did not occupy my feelings. "The empty nest experience can be an arduous roller-coaster ride, repeatedly hurtling you from the depths of depression to the pinnacles of unfettered joy. This trek might take three months, it might take three years; it’s different for every parent" (Schaffer and Wasserman, 9). I know the roller coaster analogy has been used on numerous occasions, but it fits the experience perfectly.

I was doing quite well. I actually liked having the house neat. I liked being alone. I enjoyed not having to jockey the cars around. Even though I missed the kids, I was happy with the parts of the empty nest that made my life easier. But then they came home. And that threw my emotions into a tizzy. It was a weekend in October for fall break. Then another weekend in November for Thanksgiving. I wasn’t crazy about the clothes and other personal items lying around every room of the house but it sure was nice having the kids around. Knowing they were sleeping (very late) in their own rooms, talking (sometimes very expensively) on the phone, watching TV, eating the pancakes I made for them on Sunday morning, all of us talking, bantering and teasing one another filled the house and made me enjoy these brief visits. It was hard for me to say goodbye, and even though they weren’t home long enough to really get used to them being around, when they left it hurt all over again. I have to say, though, because I have always been a person who enjoys being alone, loneliness was not the problem. I enjoy the solitude. The empty house was less disturbing than the emptiness in my heart.

Before I knew it Christmas vacation was here. We were all ready to be together again. And it was great! The shopping, decorating, dinners and just being back in our regular family routine felt so good. By now, I was used to my son being away and being more independent even when he was home. When he left for a few days to visit his girlfriend’s family in another state it was not a problem for me. But I had a much harder time with my daughter; we spent a lot of time together and enjoyed each other’s company, so it was a real treat to have her around again. However, as the time approached for both of the kids to return to school, much like when they were preparing to go away for the first time, I was dreading the day they would leave. My daughter, too, was not looking forward to this. And then the day came. After almost a month, we packed our son’s car and sent the kids back to school again, amidst hugs and tears.

In some ways it was worse than when they left the first time. It seems that just as I was getting used to them being gone, it was time for them to come home again and remind me of what I was missing and then just as I was getting used to them being home, they left again. It’s like a wound that begins to heal and then is ripped open again. This whole process is not easy.

Another problem that I found was the helplessness when my daughter, who was having some problems adjusting to being at college during her first semester, would call home. Shapiro hits the nail on the head when she writes, "You may feel fine now and think, ‘Whew! The worst is over,’ and then get a teary phone call from your daughter that sends you into a pit of depression" (121). How true. While I realize that she must work much of this out on her own, I can’t help wanting to give her motherly advice, whether she wants it or not. More likely, she just wants to have my shoulder to cry on. And just as likely, I want to be able to put my arms around her, give her a kiss and make everything better. But we both know those days are gone forever and that knowledge makes the emptiness all the more difficult.

On the positive side, though, I do see that my son, because of some decisions on his part, has become less stressed, more relaxed and happier with himself. He was going through some difficulties deciding on "what he wanted to be when he grows up." Originally majoring in Theater and then adding Business as a dual major (at the behest of his parents who adamantly insisted that he needed some other major to fall back on) he didn’t seem comfortable with this choice. He felt that perhaps, like many of his peers who always knew they wanted to be a lawyer, doctor or whatever, he should have known this all along, too. Upon returning to school after Christmas break, he busied himself with visits to various advisors on campus and called us with the news, thoughts of which I found out later had been in the back of his mind for awhile. He was now going to change his major to Education, concentrating on history with minors in Theater and Business. So it will take him another year and so we will all have to figure out how to pay for it. But he seems to be pleased with this decision. He seems to have found himself. And I admire him for following his heart. I am also immensely happy that my belief in being a jack-of-all- trades-and-master-of-none will be perpetuated in his true liberal arts education. And as some of the other mothers said in their responses, the empty nest transition is facilitated by the knowledge that your children are becoming responsible, contributing members of society.

Besides being able to read and benefit from the responses of the mothers who replied to the questionnaire, there were a few publications which I found to be helpful. In fact, as I was reading these books there were passages that sounded as if I could have written them. I would say to myself, "yes, I know, that’s exactly how I feel" as I read these books and articles and I felt how lucky I was to be writing this paper. Otherwise, I probably never would have discovered the supportive messages in these writings. Most notable are the works of Shapiro, Bovey, the article by Penny Colman, as well as the Schaffer and Wasserman book. "The transition to empty nest status has been likened to being fired from a job you never wanted to quit; it’s another kind of labor, except this time it’s your heart that’s having contractions." (Schaffer, Wasserman, 9). What could be a better description of what I am feeling?

I also feel that it is necessary for me to express another feeling I had regarding this stage of my life. Some of the research points to the similarity in feelings between men facing retirement and women facing the departure of their children. We have been told that mothers are forced to retire from their parental job, that they are being fired from a job they never wanted to quit, that the role loss for women as their children leave is much the same as the role loss of men at retirement. I know that I, too, considered this parallel in our family. My son was leaving for college at the same time my husband was retiring from his job. As expected, there were several parties, testimonials and gifts as my husband transitioned from career to retirement to new career. Everyone praised the good job he had done and acknowledged the difficulties he might face upon leaving his career. It was a bittersweet time for him and the whole family. I couldn’t help but feel a little hurt that at the same time I was beginning my retirement also, although it wouldn’t be complete until my daughter left home a couple of years later. But there was never a

party, a gift, a testimonial or praise of the good job I had done as a parent, nor serious consideration or acknowledgement of the transition I was going through in my forced retirement.

Some of the experts even claimed that I should have filled my life with other things and get on with it. I think that this lack of recognition of the mother’s role, as well as the lack of understanding of the implications that accompany the cessation of that role only perpetuate the "empty nest syndrome as a myth" belief.

I suppose that this is also the time to reminisce about my own departure from my parents’ home. Two major differences between my leaving home and my children’s are age and circumstance. I did not leave home at eighteen to go away to school. Rather, I stayed home and attended Wayne State for three years.

The summer after my third year in college I went on, what was supposed to be, a short vacation to visit my sister in Calgary, Alberta. In reality that trip ended up lasting over three months. I returned home but did not return to school. I worked at a temporary job for six months until I was able to begin a much-wanted career. I still lived at home and was quite happy. However, when I got to be around twenty-three, I realized that I could not, and should not, live at home forever. I had neither the desire nor the prospects for marriage in the near future. So, almost overnight, I decided to move out. I found a nice flat a few miles from home and within a couple of weeks I was gone. I remember thinking that I was almost crazy to leave because life was good at home with my parents and I felt a little guilty (but just a little) about leaving since I was the last child left at home. I lived nearby, however, visited often and maintained a good relationship with my parents. My father doesn’t remember feeling bad when I left. My mother recalls feeling a little sad at my departure but remembers feeling worse during the three months I spent 2000 miles away from home. I believe that my age, being settled in my career and living close to my parents’ home were significant factors in the reactions that my parents had to my departure.

So now, as I drive by the athletic fields in our neighborhood and see the parents dutifully cheering their children on in the cold or wind or rain, yes, I am happy that it is not me and that I am going to my warm, cozy home. When my Avon lady called this morning and told me she would drop my order off in between driving her daughter to dance practice and her son to hockey, I’m glad it isn’t me. But the other day, as I unexpectedly spoke with the mother of a boy my son played hockey with a number of years ago, I am reminded of all the good times that we had while the kids were young and how we, too, were rushing here and there in all kinds of weather and trying to meet everyone’s schedules and I know I wouldn’t have given any of it up for anything. The days were full, life was hectic. I longed for more relaxing times. They are now here. I can’t say that I don’t enjoy it. But I am so grateful for the memories and the relationships I built with my children over the years.

I find myself, now, listening more intently as people speak about their empty nest feelings or their delight at the impending departure of their children. A new acquaintance was recently relating her thoughts as her son, a junior in high school, was preparing for his ACT test. As she described the process of listing the colleges he wanted the results sent to, she held her hand over her heart and said, "what will I do when he’s gone?" I know those words and feelings well and truly empathize with her. She was in no mood to be reassured that things would work out. I understand those feelings, too. Another woman I recently met told me of the difficult time her husband had when their son left for college and how vocal he was about those feelings. I would have liked having him respond to the questionnaire. Two other mothers (neither of whom knew that I was working on this paper) told me that they thought next fall, when their sons would leave for college, could not come soon enough for them. I wonder if they really feel that way…if they think they should feel that way…if they will feel that way after the boys leave. I wonder if the mother I sat next to at orientation found that she missed her daughter more than she anticipated she would or if she really was too busy with her life.

I have also found that, although parents on both ends of the spectrum of feelings claim to understand the other, they really don’t. And it seems evident that each group, despite polite discussion of the matter, views the other as being from another planet. I mean I know that the reactions to this transition are truly individual. I’ve done the research. Yet I cannot help believing that those parents who do not miss their children now, perhaps were missing something with their children all along.

For me, it isn’t always easy. But I know I’ll be OK. I have confidence that my children, too, will be fine. Regardless, though, of my new job or a new hobby or my enjoyment of the solitude or my husband’s and my opportunities to do what we want to do without having to conform to anyone else’s schedule, there is still that piece of my heart that doesn’t feel quite right and none of the new distractions or serenity will be able to fill that spot. I know that I am still a novice empty-nester and I’m sure that time will facilitate the adjustment. And I am just as sure that the piece of my heart that was captured by my children when I first laid eyes on them will be theirs forever.

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Chapter Five


Now that we’ve seen what parents and scholars have to say about their research, experiences and feelings what conclusions can we draw? If my small sample can be projected into the larger population, we can conclude that, as asserted earlier and as other research points out, parents’ reactions to the empty nest are as individual as they are.

We can make one generalization, though. It is clear that mothers appear to feel, or admit to feeling, much worse than fathers do when their children leave home. The differences are not only evident in the answers given by the parents, but also in the research and writings on the empty nest. While it was difficult to find much research on father’s feelings the nature of writings by fathers on the subject was interesting. Most of the articles I found that were written by fathers were written in a humorous vein, rather than seriously. One might conclude that this is the man’s way of dealing with these emotions. Humor is a safe way of expressing the feelings that they do not feel comfortable discussing.

I think that we can presume, from the questionnaire responses, that the empty nest syndrome is not a myth. Most of the respondents had some negative feelings, even some fathers who may not have been expecting it realized that they missed their children. Shapiro reports that working mothers who thought they would be safe from the emotions of the empty nest transition found that while their roles in the working world continued to keep them busy, they were still parents who were forced to retire from this role, who were connected to their children, who loved their children and who missed their children. (107). If we remember the overwhelming response – or rather non-response - to the question, "What do you think would have made the transition easier?" we see that most respondents felt that this transition could not have been made easier. Regardless of what else goes on in a person’s life, regardless of how full it might be with outside commitments, the emotional ties to the children are still irreplaceable.

What I think we have seen is that the empty nest transition, though a normal part of family life, is a more complex situation than many people realize. It definitely is interpreted in many different ways and the actual research that was done on this syndrome in the 1960s appears to have been faulty. Yet, the results of this research are often the basis of current analysis of this stage of life. The myth status of the empty nest, as well as the negative connotations that are attached to it do a real disservice to those who experience it.

We’ve also seen that there is no right or wrong way for anyone to experience the empty nest transition. The manifestations range from mild to severe, from happy to sad and may last from three minutes to a lifetime. Most people adjust to this transition on their own. We have found that talking about this stage of life can be a useful tool in coping with it. Those who fall into deep depression, which are a minority, may require professional help. We’ve discovered that difficulties adjusting to the children’s departure can be eased as parents see their children succeeding in life. And the problems that parents may have regarding their empty nest status can be compounded by other factors in their lives, such as retirement, menopause and aging parents.

The bottom line is that the empty nest experience is an individual one. For those whose reactions are neither joyful nor indifferent, support and understanding by both parents of one another can help make this transition less troubling. Parents need to remind themselves that from endings come new beginnings. Grieving is all right as long as the grief eventually ends with the promise of a new, fulfilling stage of life. And "remember, you’re in this mess because of the great job you’ve done." (Schaffer and Wasserman, 9).

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Appendix I


My name is Sue Kearney. I am a senior at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan and will be completing my Bachelors Degree requirements in May…36 years after beginning my college career!

I am currently working on a two-semester Senior Research paper, which is my final degree requirement.

I have chosen to do my project on the "Empty Nest Syndrome"…that is what occurs when, after spending 18 or more years raising your children, they leave home…either to go to college, to get married or to pursue a career or their own lifestyle. I am going through this now and thought that it would be interesting to do some research on the subject and see how (or even if) this "empty nest" affected others.

And so I am asking for your help. Attached is a two-page set of questions regarding your experiences when your child/children left home. I would like to hear what you have to say.

I would appreciate it if you would take the time to answer these questions keeping the following statements in mind:

  1. Because I am more interested in your personal experiences rather than statistics…if you can’t answer all of the questions… I would prefer that you answer one or two of them in depth instead of all of them with brief answers.
  2. I am also interested in what fathers (whose feelings are often overlooked) have to say about what they felt when the children left home. So, fathers, please relate your experiences, too.
  3. If there is something that you particularly struggled with or enjoyed when your child/children left that I did not address in the questions, please feel free to add it on.
  4. I am also interested in how different generations and people from different geographical areas or backgrounds dealt with their children leaving…so I encourage you to pass this on to anyone you know, whatever age or background.
  5. I hope to use your stories and experiences in my paper along with other research. I will identify you only by first name, age, marital status and/or city of residence. I will take your response to the questions as permission to use your story.

I appreciate your time and assistance in this venture. I look forward to hearing your stories and experiences and learning from them. I hope that you enjoy this opportunity to express your feelings about this important transition in your lives.

Please e-mail your responses or any questions to me at suekearney66@yahoo.com

You can also mail your responses or questions to me at:

Sue Kearney


40760 Garfield

Clinton Township, MI 48038

Again…thank you for sharing your stories and time with me.

Sue Kearney

P.S. The questions are in a Microsoft Word format and can be answered right on the same page…take as much room as you need.

First Name: Age: Sex: M F

City/State/Country of residence:

Marital status while your children were at home: Currently:

How long has it been since your last child left home?

Number of Children -- Boys: Girls:

Was your youngest child a: Boy Girl

Do you feel this affected your feelings when he/she left home?

Did you work OUTSIDE the home while your children were home?

How did you become an "empty nester"? (college, marriage, child moved out, etc.).:



Did you do anything to prepare yourself for this stage of your life?



Were you looking forward to your children leaving?



How did you THINK you would feel becoming an empty nester?



How did you ACTUALLY feel once all of your children were gone?



Did you feel surprised or guilty over your feelings when your children left?



Did you…overeat…cry…withdraw…or have any other negative physical, emotional or social reactions to becoming an empty nester? (please be specific and explain).



What did you do to cope with or adjust to your empty nest and these negative feelings? (travel, go back to school, get a new job, take up new hobbies, volunteer, seek out support groups, etc….please be specific).

What positive reactions did you have to becoming an empty nester? (less stress, more leisure time, etc.).





How did the empty nest affect your marriage? Is it better? Worse? Did you and your spouse have anything in common after the kids left? What did the two of you do to adjust to this new lifestyle? Did your relationship change?



If you have PETS…how did they react to the empty house? How did YOU treat them (as surrogate children).?


Do you feel that, overall, becoming an empty nester has been a positive experience?



What do you think would have made the transition easier?



What was the most difficult adjustment?



What was easier than you expected?



How is your relationship with your children? Better than when they were at home? Worse? Same?



If your children have returned home – either for summer vacation or moved back in – how has that adjustment been? Do you look forward to them leaving again?



What advice can you give other parents facing an empty nest?



Please add anything that you would like -- to either clarify an answer or -- that you feel is important and that wasn’t addressed in a previous question or – that you would just like to share about this transition phase of your life.

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Appendix II







(McBride and McBride, 5).

Empty Nest Syndrome

You know you are suffering from "Empty Nest Syndrome" if.....

You have thrown out the better part of the last several one-gallon jugs of milk, but still can't bring yourself to buy the one-quart cartons.

You called the power company and asked them to check your meter, because the hot-water bill has been way too low.

You suddenly realize that you no longer need to include video late fees as part of the monthly budget.

You are shocked when you notice you can push the buttons on the car radio and KNOW what station you will get.

The bottle of shampoo has been in the shower so long you are starting to think it might be a mystical experience - kind of a loaves-and-fishes thing.

They've been gone three years and you still cook enough for your husband to have seconds and thirds ... and fourths.

You still walk through the living room in the crouched position with your picking-up hand brushing the floor, even though it encounters no dirty socks.

You ask the mechanic to check why your car is costing so little to run.

Your cupboards overflow with uneaten school lunch treats.

You still hide your best make-up.

(Good Clean Fun).

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Adams, Jane. I’m Still Your Mother – How to Get Along with Your Grown-Up Children For the

Rest of Your Life. Delacorte Press. 1994.

Berryhill, Allison. "The Empty Nest (how parents can cope with the empty nest syndrome when

their children grow up and move out)." Better Homes and Gardens May, 1999. 14

October 2001. http://findarticles.com/cf_0/m1041/5_77/54396659/print.jhtml

Bovey, Shelley. The Empty Nest – When Children Leave Home. Pandora. 1995.

Chapin, Harry and Sandy Chapin. Cat’s in the Cradle. The Harry Chapin Archive. 2 December

2001. http://www.harrychapin.com/music/cats.shtml

Coburn, Karen Levin and Madge Lawrence Treeger. Letting Go: A Parents’ Guide to

Understanding the College Years. Harper Perennial. 1997.

Coleman, William L. From Full House to Empty Nest. Discovery House Publishers. 1994.

Colman, Penny. "Empty Nest." Mothering. Spring 1990, n. 55. p. 24. 17 November 2001.


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Student Papers


Interdisciplinary Studies Program  Wayne State  University