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Sunday, January 20 , 2019, 7:44 am | Fair 47º


Russell Collins: The Empty Nest

With the kids out of the house, adults at midlife can choose to fly or falter

An Unfortunate Term

An “empty nest” is a pretty forlorn piece of business — something broken and slightly rotting that you sweep out of the eaves in the fall, its useful life as an incubator of new generations in the past. Now, it’s just a sad reminder of vanished spring, headed for the trash bin.

Russell Collins
Russell Collins

I don’t much like the term Empty Nest Syndrome (ENS) either. It carries a similarly depressing connotation, as if life after children were just an epilogue to the main event, where seniors take up square-dancing to fill the empty hours of their twilight years. ENS — despite its official ring — is not a condition listed in the authoritative directories of psychiatric illnesses. And while you can read about it in Oprah Magazine and Psychology Today, it does not appear on serious medical Web sites such as the Mayo Clinic or the National Institute of Mental Health.

Nor, it turns out, does the Empty Nest idea appear to have much validity as a predictor of happiness when your children head off to college. Recent research suggests that women (who are the subject of most ENS-related research) are in fact likely to be more fulfilled and happy in important dimensions of life after their children leave home. Marital satisfaction goes up, according to a 2009 study by UC Berkeley researcher Sara Gorchoff, though a small group of women suffer depression at this stage of life — especially women who worry excessively as the departure date approaches.

The Feelings Are Different — A Personal Story

The term “Empty Nest Syndrome,” in other words, may not be all that helpful as a way of understanding life transitions in midlife. For one thing, the experience of kids leaving home is vastly different for different parents at different times.

I was profoundly sad when my daughter left for college two years ago, and I have some pretty deep anxiety about next year when my son goes away. But my feelings are different, because the kids are different. When our girl left, the absence of her happy, excited voice ringing in the rafters (or unhappy excited voice, sometimes) left a gaping sound vacuum in the house and in our lives. My anxiety around the departure of our son has more to do with my performance as a parent. Did I do a good job? Was I too hard on him about the grades and SATs during these past two years? Did we restrict his activities and fun too much? Will he be happy and successful at college, and if so, did I contribute to that, or is it just in spite of my parenting?

Every Parent Is Different, Too

A surprisingly large percentage of parents suffer because they don’t suffer enough — they actually look forward to the end of the active day-to-day supervision duties, and suffer with guilt as a result. Other parents suffer because of the momentary disorientation or grief that comes with the loss of a valued aspect of their identity: soccer dad, tutor, friend or confidante. Still others miss a core activity they share with their child, such as sports, music or just hanging out.

Worrying About the Wrong Things

“I picture us sitting across the dinner table from each other with nothing to say.” These are the words of Suzanne, a community college English teacher and mom, describing the primal fear of the empty-nest couple: alone with each other in the fading light of a fall evening, the kids’ empty chairs lined up as bitter reminders of lost happiness. As she pictures an endless string of such moments extending to the horizons of old age, she’s filled with dread.

The reality of Suzanne’s daughter leaving home is likely to be far less dire than she imagines. There’s a human tendency to “catastrophize” the future, especially when there are highly charged negative images — like the empty chairs — available to your brain.

Researcher Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon terms this kind of thinking as “imaging the numerator,” because it occurs when people have an emotionally laden image of a possible negative outcome, but no way to visualize the statistical likelihood of such a thing occurring — plane crashes or terrorist attacks being the obvious examples.

There will certainly be moments when Suzanne feels lonely or empty or sad after her daughter departs, but they will be relatively few and far between. Most of her life’s activities will go on exactly as before, and there may well be improvements in her daily experience. It’s important for Suzanne to recognize this because — and I found this surprising — Gorchoff’s research pointed out that worrying about empty nest depression is a significant risk factor for empty nest depression. A self-fulfilling prophecy, if you will, and one that might be neutralized by addressing it in the months and weeks leading up to her daughter’s departure.

Generativity — A Better Frame of Reference

In the 1950s, developmental psychologist Erik Erikson (quite famously, in the psychology world) proposed that our emotional and psychological development doesn’t end with childhood, but continues throughout the lifespan. Midlife, according to Erikson, should be a time of great satisfaction if we are in touch with our sense of purpose and contribution to the larger world, and to the next generation specifically. As teachers, artists, mentors, activists, opinion makers, etc., adults at midlife have many ways of shaping the world.

The term Erikson used for this quality of being engaged in life during middle age was “generativity.” Far from the role suggested by the image of an empty nest, generativity provides another way of dealing with the loneliness or aimlessness that may arise as kids go off to school or out into life: getting involved and giving back.

With the kids out of the house, the deck is cleared for parents who are ready to step into new roles.

— Russell Collins, Psy.D., is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.

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