You remember the colic, the 2 a.m. feedings and the dirty diapers. Will it ever end? Then there’s the terrible twos, the “why?” “why?” “why?” and the picky-persnickety eaters. Will it ever end? Next come the terrifying teenage traumas – heartbreaks, pimples and designer jeans. Will it ever end?
And then it does.
As families across the country pack up and escort their children to college campuses that will serve as home for the next four years, that now-empty bedroom can be outfitted as the gym and workout room Dad always wanted or the office Mom needs.
But all of a sudden, parents start asking, “Who am I without my child?” “What am I going to do with my time?” and “Why did it ever end?”
It’s a parent’s plight as children fly the coop and Empty Nest Syndrome takes root.
“When my kids were little, someone told me to spend each day like they are leaving tomorrow, because it will come so fast,” said Los Altos Hills resident Angela Sanders.
But that didn’t prepare Sanders for her daughter’s flight to UC Berkeley in 2003.
“In high school, Kelly would be up at 4 a.m. to swim, home at 6:30 p.m., eat dinner, do homework, go to bed,” Sanders said. “We didn’t have much of that time together. Our time was precious.”
Sanders and her husband, Matthew, were already accustomed to bouts of time without her while Kelly was away on goodwill missions to Africa and Tibet. And they still had their son, Evan, at home.
“We kind of made a pact that we would not call or go visit Kelly (when she first left home),” Sanders said. “But it’s difficult for mothers with daughters. You miss them.”
Sue Thomson, a licensed clinical social worker in Los Altos, said patients consult her when they’re feeling depressed or unhappy.
“People don’t call and necessarily say they have Empty Nest Syndrome,” she said. “But once the youngster leaves, there’s a huge hole.”
As a single parent, Main Street Cafe & Books owner Jamie Tomaselli wasn’t quite prepared for the flood of emotion she experienced after dropping off her daughter, Alexis Lakey, at San Francisco State University.
“Everybody told me I was going to get the Empty Nest Syndrome,” Tomaselli said. “She’s been my focus for 18 years.”
But Tomaselli didn’t feel the emptiness until she returned home after leaving Alexis at school.
“I sobbed the most painful sobs I’ve ever cried,” she said.
At a high school function the next day, Tomaselli discovered other parents had experienced the same emotions.
“We all had to wear dark glasses,” she said. “We all went through that same thing the first evening.”
According to Thomson, many parents, particularly mothers who have stayed home to focus on their children’s needs, said the early days of empty-nesting represent a huge transition that sparks self-reflective questions about their roles and value.
“From being a director in a child’s life, you become an occasional consultant,” she said. “All of a sudden, they have a lot more people to ask for advice, and they’re not asking you.”
“Empty Nest Syndrome” is the term assigned to the depression, sadness or grief parents feel when children leave the home, according to Psychology Today.
“It’s not a term found in a diagnostic manual,” Thomson said. “It’s a loss of the way your family was.”
After Sanders’ son left for college three years ago, the house quieted down. From navigating the interactions between her serious and analytical daughter and her joking and teasing son to the empty bedrooms above, she felt their absence.
“I didn’t share those feelings. I would avoid going upstairs,” Sanders said. “But they have to learn independence to be adults – there are certain things they have to learn. And (I) had to learn to find the bright side of things.”
Mountain View resident Dawn Bridges, a licensed marriage and family therapist and high school student advocate counselor, knows what families go through when children leave home.
“The first one leaving was really hard,” Bridges said of her now 22-year-old daughter Heather, who recently graduated from California Lutheran University. “The family was changing for the first time. For the second, I was more prepared.”
It’s a paradox for parents. The goal in parenting is to raise independent and self-sufficient adults, Bridges said.
“All of sudden, it’s gone in a flash,” she said. “And then there’s self-reflection – did we do our job as a parent?”
While parents are contemplating the past, children may be paving the way to the future, making it easier for parents to appreciate their eventual absence.
“Some parents feel relief,” Thomson said. “Children act more rebellious – they push off with great vigor.”
It happened to Bridges.
“It’s a pattern. It becomes a tiffy relationship,” Bridges said. “Children are getting ready to leave, parents are in a clinging mode – it’s two opposing forces. On one hand, (the children) are excited to be leaving. On the other hand, it’s a little scary, too. At least I knew what was going on.”
Thomson said it’s good for parents to remember their children are also in transition.
“There’s an adjustment for everyone in the family,” she said.
Tomaselli has accepted the change.
“The good thing is, you know they are where they should be,” she said. “Knowing (Alexis) is unbelievably happy makes it easier.”
And some parents enjoy the emptiness. They’re free from having to prepare meals and suddenly have time for personal thoughts, reflection, activities – there’s more flexibility in their schedules.
Los Altos resident Maria Murphy Lonergan dropped off her daughter, Kate, at Wellesley College in Boston a month ago.
“I’m one of the lucky ones. Instead of feeling sad like many parents, I’m excited and energized about what my kids are doing,” she said. “I do keep the doors to the bedrooms closed – that’s the one caveat.”
And Lonergan enjoys the freedom from cooking meals.
“My husband and I get to indulge in a lot of noneating,” she said.
For those facing gaps of time left empty of parental duties – “Try to create a life for yourself,” Thomson said.
Bridges made a point of taking on more responsibility at work and filled her social calendar. Sanders put in more hours on her hobbies, creating watercolor paintings and mosaic art pieces.
“We have a little spontaneity to do things and travel – we couldn’t do that before,” Lonergan said of her new stage of life with her husband, Bill.
It’s also a time for couples to refocus attention on each other, Thomson said.
Sanders said she and Matthew had to relearn what attracted them to each other.
“Now, you’re totally focusing on each other,” Sanders said. “It was a little strange at first. Now we’re biking, walking together after dinner, we share activities with friends.”
Time is definitely a luxury Tomaselli is enjoying, with extra hours she’s now able to put in at the gym.
“There are no (car) dropoffs, I don’t have to prepare meals,” she said. “I’m starting to open up different doors for myself.”
One of those doors may be extending her cafe’s business hours into the evening.
Lonergan said she and Bill have always enjoyed each other’s company, but they had a taste of the empty nest a couple of years ago when her older son, Chris, left for the University of San Diego and daughter Kate was appointed as a congressional page and spent part of her junior year of high school in Washington, D.C.
“We took a six-week trip to Europe,” she said. “I’m hopeful we’ll be able to pull that off again.”
So, you just get comfortable with your new life, adjust to the empty bedrooms, cozy with hubby or honey and, bam, a child returns home with a degree, bag and baggage.
“It’s called the ‘Boomerang Generation,’” Thomson said.
It happened to Bridges.
“The economy is making a big difference in that,” Bridges said. “I was an empty-nester for 24 hours.”
After seeing her younger daughter, Haley, off to Arizona State University last month, her elder daughter, Heather, returned, pedigreed and – one of the lucky ones – gainfully employed in her field of study.
It’s more than a trend, according to information on the thefiscaltimes.com Web site, which cited an AFL-CIO survey that estimated one-third of workers under 34 live with their parents. And those are the ones with jobs.
Bridges said she enjoys having Heather back, and for others in that position, it’s important to respect the new relationship between parent and child.
Recently, Bridges admonished Heather when she ordered a regular coffee instead of decaf late at night. Heather gracefully changed her order but later gently chided Mom that she was old enough to choose which coffee to drink.
“It’s easy to fall back into that different dynamic,” she said. “It’s good to have a conversation about that.”
From grief to gravy
Thomson said it’s natural for parents to feel depressed after children leave, it’s similar to mourning after someone dies