Before my youngest brother left the house for good, leaving in his wake the proverbial empty nest, he really had it made in the shade. It wasn’t until he was 28 that Cupid saw fit to shoot one in his amorous thing, rendering him hopelessly in love, and moving him to marry a pretty young lady who has for the past seventeen years seen fit to put up with him, both of them now a family with three beautiful girls. But before he moved out we affectionately called him Baby King because he was incessantly doted on while the rest of his older siblings worked as dutiful taxpayers.
The Baby King would come home from work and Mom, the homemaker extraordinaire, would have his favorite meals cooked, his laundry done, his bed made up, and who knows what other machinations of pampering was bestowed upon him. Probably even had his slippers brought to him!
Now to his credit I must say that he more than carried his weight for these fringe benefits. He helped out around the house above and beyond. It was impressive. He’d learned from Dad many repair jobs, in addition to teaching himself how to do many handyman skills, which to this day come in handy for the rest of his siblings, especially me, who frequently calls on him for help.
So when he flew the coop his absence was sorely felt in addition to there being one less person at the dinner table. Neither of our parents were pathologically affected by their empty nest experience but they nevertheless felt a little something from it. I remember Dad sharing with me once that when Baby King was the last to ‘retire’ from summer baseball play that he would feel a little wistful when baseball season rolled around, as he had volunteered for years.
And so it is with many, when the last child leaves, parents who’ve loved, and involved themselves in their children’s lives can indeed experience loneliness, melancholy, or depression.
However, this is not the case for all parents, a dubious group in which I include myself. When my four began leaving the house I experienced an insidious surge of joy, realizing my automobile insurance premiums were falling from outer space. And when the last struck out on his own I remember saying a prayer of gratitude and drinking a half bottle of wine in celebration. Besides, we’d given them instructions, wishing them good luck and telling them in so many teddy-bear words that whatever you do – don’t come back! Really, we weren’t that harsh, but I think they got the message, although I pulled one over to the side and chided him, telling him if he ever came back I’d break his thumbs.
But I had a patient once whose life had been so consumed with her five children that when the baby daughter left to live in a foreign land, California, she lost interest in most things, becoming withdrawn. At one point, not responding to medication, I referred her for counseling. She finally snapped out of it the following spring.
Women who are ‘married’ to their children, more or less, or are maximally invested emotionally at the expense of the emotional bonds with their spouse, tend to suffer the most. The glow that once prevailed in the marital relationship, replaced by the relationship with their children, suddenly presents a challenge. To the degree their spouse is receptive determines the ease or not with which the loneliness or depression is assuaged.
Some matriarch and patriarchs often follow their departing children out the door, imposing themselves in their children’s lives, welcomed or not, sometimes to escape, or unable to cope with the lonely feeling of the Empty Nest. Also, controlling personalities can have difficulty giving their children up to independence. However, healthy matriarchs and patriarchs allow their children their independence, serving to provide, when asked, guidance and wisdom as to decision making and problem solving.
Couples who have not nurtured their relationship together over the years will have an especially difficult time refurbishing their relationship, often feeling cold and distant, this being one reason to do things together on a regular basis while the children are being raised. Every day that goes by that emotional energy is not injected or invested into the relationship, makes it that more difficult to prevent indifference from creeping into the relationship when the kids move out.
Another way to ‘vaccinate’ oneself, as a single parent or as a couple, against the Empty Nest Syndrome is to establish, maintain, and nurture a balance between friends and significant others, as well as engage in sharing-type activities, or to participate in groups, allowing one to balance and vary one’s relationships. Balance is key to many things, if not everything.
Regardless, a couple experiencing the Empty Nest Syndrome should willfully sit down and explore ways to mutually satisfy each other’s prevailing interests and needs, as well as see it as an opportunity to explore new interests. This is the advice I might give my good friend, married when Nixon was president, who shared that they’ve had various aged children under their feet for many of those years, the economy notwithstanding. Be it a blessing or a curse, it speaks to their integrity as a marital unit that their children and grandchildren have seen fit to be close to them. This, I’m sure, has been a challenge. It seems we are better wired in youth, than we are as seniors, to be effective parents.
If you’re an older parent with an adult child living under your roof, develop mutual interests and do things together with your spouse. And make the little chickadee carry their weight.
If you happen to have a Baby King living with you then for sure consider yourself blessed – unless of course you’re bringing him his slippers, in which case you have a different problem altogether!