Why does Empty Nest Syndrome exist?
Empty Nest Syndrome refers to feelings of depression, sadness, and/or grief experienced by parents and caregivers after children come of age and leave their childhood homes. Psychology TodayDo you ever wonder how we, the older generation, grew up to be so involved in our children’s lives? I do. Were we so badly brought up that we had to embrace every aspect of parenthood to the nth degree, to become the helicoptering parent? So much so that in the 1970s a new term was coined, though I can’t find out by whom. The Empty Nest Syndrome, not an actual clinical condition, but one suffered by many parents, not surprisingly mostly the mums, left distraught when their grown child heads off into the world on their own.
I don’t believe we were badly brought up, but somewhere along the line we have in some cases allowed our own selves to be subsumed by our children’s wants – not needs. No one is suggesting a return to the days of children being presented for a quick ten minute viewing, but maybe the pendulum has swung too far.
We, as parents, sometimes need to remember our children are on loan to us. We are their incubators, both before birth and after. We try to keep them safe and warm, we try to teach them to view the world openly, and we try to prepare them for a time when they must make their own decisions. We bite our tongues, but in the privacy of our bedrooms we rant at their latest hair-brained, sure-to-fail scheme, or gnash our teeth at the some wholly unsuitable boy or girlfriend. But, although there of course instances when intervention is absolutely needed, on the whole we must allow them to make their own mistakes, to make some poor choices despite our guidance, because only through those errors of judgment will they truly learn.
Helicoptering our children has I think made the ‘empty nest’ that much harder to bear. Our children have become the focus of our lives, rather than a very precious part of it; necessary of course when they are tiny and truly helpless but not so much as they grow.
When our daughter was born in the Netherlands, a wise old woman told me in excellent but heavily accented English, “the apron, you have now to start loosening the strings”. Looking at my swaddled baby, I didn’t really get it, but over the following months and years as Kate became a little person, I started to understand. I remember feeling redundant when she started nursery school in Bangkok and came home talking about her teacher, until I remembered those words spoken in a rural Dutch home.
Boarding schools and empty nests
For expatriates the decision to send children to boarding school is one of the hardest they will ever make. No matter it is made with the full approval of the child, it is still a gut-churning time in the parenting calendar. Until then, even if you went the boarding school route as I did, you have been blithely assuming your teenager, puberty-fueled tantrums and all, will be with you until they head off to university, or whatever other route they have chosen. But to wave goodbye to a child of eleven, or thirteen, or even sixteen, is ghastly, and I truly cannot imagine doing that to a six or seven year old.
At those young ages, our job is not yet finished and here we are abrogating our responsibility to some unknown person. Someone we are trusting to mold our child into the young man or woman we hope for, someone picked from a prospectus and a day of meeting. The proverbial nest is emptied far too early but we do it because it is the best option for a particular child, given the present circumstances, and we have to trust ourselves in that decision. Our son who went to boarding school at age thirteen has never regretted the choice.
Helping our kids face the world
For most of us though our children leave when they are ready to face the world, and it is our job to ready them. And the best way to do that is to encourage them to stretch their wings bit by bit, to not mollycoddle or shield them from all of life’s trials. Life can be hard, and sad, and disappointing, and unpleasant at times, but we set our children up to fail if we have not helped give them the tools needed to cope. And because we have been easing those strings just a little at a time, when those cherished beings do step away, we are left sad but not bereft. We have managed to keep a little of ourselves for ourselves. We have interests that do not rely on our children’s interests, we can speak to our spouse of things other than Ian’s latest match, or Rebecca’s GPA.
For those on the nomadic path there is the added dimension of distance. University on the other side of the world, even if it is to their passport country, is a long way from their current home. Add in the blight called time difference and the elastic we have given our children feels stretched to breaking point, sometimes for both parent and child.
However we, and they, adjust because we all have too. And those times called family holidays take on an added piquancy, and we realize because we have given them the freedom to fly, they want to return.
But not for too long!
By Apple Gidley
Apple Gidley, a freelance writer and author of Expat Life Slice by Slice, has traveled extensively and is a seasoned expatriate having started her nomadic life at a month old in West Africa. She has lived, worked and raised two TCKs in Nigeria, England, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, Papua New Guinea, The Netherlands, Trinidad and Tobago, Thailand, Scotland, Equatorial Guinea and the USA. Apple currently lives in Houston, Texas. Read her blog at www.my.telegraph.co.uk/applegidley or visit her website at www.applegidley.com
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Thanks for the comments ladies – having just put my daughter and granddaughters on a plane back to Trinidad, just in time to greet my son on Thursday – it feels more like a revolving door nest at the moment – but oh so wonderful!
Thank you for your wonderful article, Apple. Enjoy your family 🙂
My mother always used the words ‘Our children are not our own; they are on loan to us for 18 years, and it’s our job to make sure they are worthy of their lifetime partner’
It’s helped me hugely when my son left home for college this year – I don’t ‘miss’ him, because I know he was ready to leave and I am so immensely proud as I watch him shaping his own happiness. Whether it will be the same when my daughter goes and I am left with a quiet home (apart from four large dogs…) remains to be seen.
But regardless, there is something profoundly wonderful about watching them leave, learn from their own mistakes, find their own answers and truly understand the lessons that you tried to teach.
Extremely wise words from your mother. I totally agree with this attitude and hope I can raise my girl in the same way.
My daughter currently attends boarding school and I don’t ‘miss’ her as such – social media and daily phone calls help – but it does feel odd to be a mum while your child isn’t around. I’m so proud of her making her own way in life and developing independently.
This “dance of the distance” has been a killer for me. As a kid leaving my own family the dance was fast and fun with no thought of how the distance was for my own Mom. When we changed directions and I was the Mom and my own kids danced away – it was a slow and painful separation for me. We were the typical expats that stated, “We will never do boarding school.” Then we did. This was a first for our whole extended family so it was a very intense learning curve for us all. Now the empty nest is very much a part of my life and the fact that we have already gone through this added dimension of distance, we seem to be surviving.
I was like you with the “I’d never send my child to boarding school”! But life changes, sometimes too dramatically for good, and off she went. I cope with the empty nest because I love my own company and had always raised her to be as independent as possible. She needs to carve her own life, rather than have it set out for her by her parents. Having independence and strength is a great goal.
Boarding school is a tough call. I had to go at 11, my sister at 8 and we hated it at first but there was no choice to it. There was no culture of boarding in our family so it was doubly hard for my parents to face the disapprobation of family and I know my parents hankered for our company in the holidays.
We grew to love school and the stability it provided us in the midst of a nomadic existence. It also made us a very close family – much closer than I think we would have been without the boarding experience. That said I cannot imagine sending my own children away just yet, our oldest is already 8 but it seems far far too young.
I think it’s one of the hardest choices any parent can make. And then to face down the inevitable judgments from other people… But make it we must, as in most cases it’s in the best interest of the child.
But taking boarding school out of the equation, I do think we tend to over-protect our kids these days in general, which means they are poorly prepared for independent adulthood.