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How to deal with empty nest syndrome

Ginny Brzezinski describes how she overcame empty nest syndrome and advice she gained from other women and mothers.
Image: Girl Packing for College
David P. Hall / Getty Images

Today I nearly cried while making a turkey sandwich. It wasn’t the sandwich that caused the emotional reaction, but what it represented. You see, my now 18-year-old son (for whom I was making the sandwich) is graduating from high school in a few weeks, and this was the last time I would make his school lunch.

Under normal circumstances, I would be elated. Despite years of practice, I never really mastered school lunches, and embraced half days as my days off from the brown bag routine. But this sandwich was different.

I knew this day was coming - not the sandwich part of it - but the leaving. I feel like I’ve been getting phased out since my two kids, now 17 and 18, got their driver’s licenses, and stopped needing me for pretty much, well, anything.

Still, this weeping-over-a-sandwich caught me by surprise.

My first transition, 18 years ago.

I remember when my son was about 10 days old and I went out for a run. After three months of bedrest, a day of labor and 10 days of recovery, I just could not wait any longer to hit the running trails. I needed some of my old life back. So I left my newborn with my capable husband and visiting mother, put on three giant nursing bras and some loose sweatpants, laced up and against doctor’s orders, went for a run. Along the path I came across two women - whom I did not know - but somehow I knew they had kids. They must have thought I was out of my mind because, out of breath, sweating profusely despite the November chill. I stopped them and literally asked, “When will my life go back to normal?” This whole motherhood thing was crazy - how did people do this? How would I survive the sleep deprivation, the loss of control, and the overwhelming knowledge that there was now a life that depended fully on me - me! - how?

I think they kindly avoided giving me a direct answer - because the truth that all parents know is that it never goes back to normal. But I ended up loving my new normal much more. I embraced it so much that after we welcomed our second child fourteen months later, I happily left my paying job to be home with the two babies. Being their mom was the best job I ever had. And now, 18 years later, I am about to be laid off.

Now, I want to find those women again and ask them, “When, oh when, will I ever feel right again?” Did I get so comfortable in the nest that now I can’t even imagine what it will be like without my kids in it?

It’s not them, it’s me.

Don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled for both of my kids to begin their next chapter, which is well defined for them: college. I am just not sure what my next chapter is, and maybe that’s the problem.

My days had been tethered by the mostly wonderful and sometimes mundane tasks of raising kids, from carpools to preschool schedules and PTA meetings to nightly readings of Go Dog Go. There were family dinners and hikes, trekking all over the eastern seaboard for track meets and basketball games, and advising on college decisions. But suddenly, things feel rather vacant and unfocused. I need to find structure and meaning and purpose again. I need to find me again. My identity, psychologists say, is wrapped up in being a mom, and it’s time for me to branch out and get a new life of my own. In my head, I know this. But my heart still breaks to know that my role in both of my children’s lives will soon be diminished, as it should be.

What’s my problem?

What I am going through, says Dr. Guy Winch, practicing psychologist in New York and the author ofEmotional First Aid, is “anticipatory loss.” They have not left yet, but I am beginning to experience that loss with moments he calls “markers of termination,” like the sandwich. (And now it really sounds scary.)

“You are about to sustain an emotional injury,” he told me when we spoke, which explains my near physical pain and paralysis when I consider my future. “The parenting role took up such a big part of your life. It’s really now almost starting from scratch - it can be very challenging, very anxiety provoking and it can be very bewildering because a lot of people at that point in their lives don’t know really where to start.” Bingo.

Yes, my affliction is twofold: a whole lot of heartbreak and a good dose of existential crisis. My children are moving out and they are taking my identity with them. Along the journey of raising my kids, I may have forgotten that the goal was to nurture them into independent, self-sustaining adults. But where does that leave me?

“You are moving forward without a net,” Melissa Shultz, author ofFrom Mom to Me Again, told me. “You are moving from this place where you were very practiced. In theory as they are growing, we are letting go, bit by bit, because that is our ultimate goal, to make them self- aware, self-functioning young adults. But when it gets to the part where they’re about to be really out the door, that can stop you in your tracks and have you rethink everything.”

“Some endings are actually beginnings in disguise.” (Melissa Shultz, From Mom to Me Again)

Shultz’s poignant memoir / empty nest guidebook chronicles her own road to reinvention after her two sons left for college. She says the single biggest feeling from women coping with an empty nest is “a sense of stillness.” She says we need to create a new rhythm and that this is a chance to reboot now that we may be in a position where our schedules are our own again. But, she advises, start the process early. “You need to make sure before they leave that you find or reconnect with interests, whether they are related to the work you’ve done or you’ve never done, to rethink who you are and what you’d like to do moving forward,” Shultz told me. “It’s a great time to rekindle some other aspects of your life - other interests that perhaps you put aside for a while because life got very busy and you were focused on raising a family.”

Winch, the psychologist, calls it an exploration process. “This is about what is your life going to be about now. What is something that will give you a sense of purpose? What is something that will give your life meaning? What is something that will make you feel like you, like a good version of you, and a happy version of you, an actualized version of you? It doesn’t have to start that big - but there needs to be a very clear process of exploration.”

My own mother handled both my brother’s transition - and my own - perfectly. A stay-at-home mom during the 1970’s, she went back and finished her college degree when my brother and I were school aged, then got her masters right around the time I graduated from high school. I was off to college, and she was starting her own business in historic preservation. In retrospect, her plan was genius.

Advice from moms who’ve been there.

While I couldn’t go back and find those two women from the running trail eighteen years ago, I decided to ask other smart women in my life how they coped, recovered and reinvented after their kids left the nest. I found their words comforting and inspiring, and I wanted to share some of their wisdom, and more of Melissa Shultz’s.

Start early: Visualize the change to prepare yourself.

“These mini-visualizations helped prepare me for the eventual shift that was to take place in our family and made me stronger and more confident. The day we left our daughter at college (very far away) and said ‘we will see you in 4 months’, I didn’t cry. I didn’t feel panic or feel anxious. I knew she was going to be fine and I knew we were going to be fine.” (mom of 2 from Connecticut)

Find friends.

“I think it’s really important to find a group of women who inspire you, who make you laugh and who are open to conversation about life moving forward,” author Melissa Shultz told me. “Finding other women that you can speak frankly with and who share their feelings… Those are not only rewarding emotionally but… also help you spark this next stage in life. Those women can help you think about what you’d like to do and where you’d like to go moving forward. A lot of those relationships can help lead to other things.” And pay it forward: “Once you’ve taken a few steps of your own, reach out and share your experience with the mom who is expressing concern about where her future will lead.”

Focus on you and flex your new empty nest life.

“I set up my life the exact way I advise my business clients. It’s an ‘agile’ flexible framework with exit strategies built in,” says a friend who has found her new balance to be a mix of a well-paid consultant job, a rewarding part time stint working at a local preschool, volunteering at a homeless women’s shelter and regular visits with her 92-year-old mom. “I love working, but I love the freedom of volunteering and being a mother and daughter even more. My new life has taken shape doing things I find interesting, maximizing my consulting hours and valuing time and flexibility above all. The result is a patchwork existence that somehow works and covers all of the bases. I gave the new schedule a test run (when my daughter was a senior in high school). [This balance] is my personal recipe for surviving the empty nest.” (mom of 2 from Virginia)

Your world actually expands.

“You will meet new people and your world will expand. You will travel more to see [your kids], share your world with their friends and open yourself to new ideas and experiences.” (mom of 2 from Missouri)

This is not the end of parenting, it is a shift.

“Don’t think of it as the end of parenting, because it really is not the end. Think of it as the shift from active parenting to mentoring. They still need you.” (Melissa Shultz)

“Your kids will call and they really just want to vent and talk. They don’t want judgment and it’s unlikely that they want advice. You’ll be surprised at how “adult” they have become if you just listen. And remember, these college kids actually get large breaks of time off, so you will get to see them more than you think.” (mom of 2 from Missouri)

When the first one leaves, the family dynamic changes in surprising ways.

“When [our youngest] became the only child at home, she became a talkative, engaging housemate (despite being the quietest of the bunch growing up). [Suddenly] she enjoyed lingering over meals in the dining room.” (mom of 3 from Connecticut)

Marriages go through an adjustment period, too.

“It does impact marriages, even the best, for obvious reasons” says Shultz. “Your kids were a major focus in your life, and when they leave, it does change the dynamic and it doesn’t need to be in a bad way.”

“It’s scary to think about being a couple again. What will it be like eating at home for two on a regular basis?” (mom of 3 from Connecticut)

“I have been worrying, will my husband and I still have that connection? We had a taste of life without our children during spring break (when they were all gone). My husband and I had a blast! We had spontaneous adventures from playing tennis any time of the day to going to the new movie theater in town to going out for meals wherever and whenever we wanted! So as much as I’m sad to have all (four) of the children gone, I know I’ll be fine and look forward to the next adventure with and without my children!” (mom of 4 from Massachusetts)

Celebrate because there is less laundry and you can finally clean out their room.

“I need to tell you that I have been crying giant crocodile tears at the thought of being able to clean all the sticky paper plates out of [my daughter’s] room and never washing [the other daughter’s] laundry again.” (mom of three from Connecticut)

What’s next?

Our biggest milestones are coming up. My son’s college drop off is in August (Melissa Shultz says don’t look back as you drive away.) I am looking forward to my daughter’s senior year of high school, and the opportunity to get to know her in a new way. All of us - my son, daughter and husband – have been going through this transition together, getting teary from time to time, but I am beginning to be hopeful and excited about a new beginning. I’m getting ready to flex my own empty nest wings. It’s time.

By Ginny Brzezinski Ginny Brzezinski is Know Your Value's Comeback Career contributor. She and Mika Brzezinski are co-authoring a book for women re-entering the workforce, which will be released in September 2019. Connect with Ginny on LinkedIn. Read more about Ginny here.