A lonely or lovely empty nest is up to you
The empty nest—which results when our children are self-sufficient enough to be out of the house and living on their own—is an evitable part of motherhood. We do our best to give them the tools they need to be successful and productive members of society, but whether your child goes off to college, joins the military, or secures that first job and moves out of your house “for good,” an empty nest can bring a sudden onslaught of emotions.
Of course, you’re exuberant. You did it! Your child is officially “raised.” Give yourself permission to feel proud about a job well done.
You may be excited about upcoming plans you made for after your child leaves the house, or maybe you’re feeling a sense of relief that he made it to this point. You may also feel some trepidation about what the future holds for your child or perhaps you’re fearful about what your life will be like without the person who consumed so much of your time and energy. This is a time of loss, and maybe you’re sad at the thought of no longer seeing your child every day. As my friend Savannah put it, “Once my daughter goes to college, I will be all alone. I will have no one.”
For the Solo Mom for whom parenting has taken center stage for more than 18 years, transitioning to an empty nest can send you into a debilitating spiral of depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Questions start swirling around in your head: What will I do without someone to care for? Who am I if I am not a full-time mom anymore? Take a deep breath and consider the following tips.
Put things in perspective. It’s important to remember you will always be a mom, even if the day-to-day demands of motherhood are gone. Motherhood is about navigating the phases and changes in your child’s life. Just as they transitioned from bottles to solid food, from needing their diapers changed to being potty trained, from crawling to walking and running, your children will transition from living at home full time to part time to eventually living in their own homes. Your presence in their lives has been evolving since they were born, and that’s not going to stop now.
Solo Moms who have shared custody of their children may be more prepared for the empty nest than they realize. Sarah, a Solo Mom of two, and her ex had a joint-custody arrangement, which gave her considerable time alone before her children left the nest. She says she used that time to nurture her own interests and relationships, so when her kids finally left home, she felt more prepared than some of her married friends did.
Be patient. Many Solo Moms have not had the opportunity that Sarah did and suddenly find themselves with a lot of time and energy, and more space at home after their children leave. Maya, a Solo Mom and empty nester, emphasizes the importance of getting reacquainted with yourself during this transition. She cautions that it “may take a minute to remember who you were before you became a mother,” so be patient.
She also warns the Solo Mom: Don’t be surprised if the post-child-rearing woman you are now is dramatically different from the person you were before becoming a mother. (And don’t feel guilty about it, either.) “There is nothing wrong with celebrating the fact that you’ve successfully moved your child to the next phase of his or her life by moving forward to a new phase of your own,” she encourages.
Invest in yourself. Consistent and intentional self-care is key to successfully navigating this new phase. Take this time to rest and restore, whatever that looks like for you. Go to a spa, take a staycation, enjoy a long bath. Make plans with friends, schedule a weekend getaway, find things that bring you joy. Identify some activities that you have been putting off because of the demands of single parenthood and just do them. Go back to school, take that pottery class, learn to knit, start reading again—whatever it is, this is the perfect time to invest in yourself. You have been giving a lot of yourself over the years; now is the time to replenish your soul and be kind to yourself.
Empty-nester Kay used her newfound time to nurture her love of reading by joining a book club, something she never felt she could fit in before. The club became much more than just discussing books; for Kay, it became a safe space to share her feelings and experiences.
Set some goals. Are there things you’ve continually put on the back burner? Maybe you’ve been wanting to enhance your fitness regimen by running your first road race. Or maybe you’ve always wanted to write a children’s book. Take some courses on writing for children, read more children’s books, join a writers’ group . . . setting goals helps keep you motivated, and achieving them will give you a sense of accomplishment.
Establish boundaries. Just because your child isn’t living at home doesn’t mean communication between the two of you stops. You miss him, and it’s natural to want to know how he’s doing; but as you’re transitioning into the empty nest, the need to reach out to your child may feel more urgent. Middlebury College psychology professor Barbara Hofer says it’s important to let kids establish the ground rules when it comes to communicating. “In the cases where the students did more initiating than the parents, the students were happier, they were more autonomous, they had less conflict with their parents, they had better grades.” Keep the communication open, but remember that just as you are adjusting to life as an empty nester, your child is adjusting to more autonomy and independence.
Be open. Your new life can be whatever you make it. With more time and room (literally and figuratively) come more possibilities to fill your life with meaning, purpose, and joy. Be open to the wonder of what could be. The empty nest doesn’t have to be lonely; instead, it can be quite lovely.
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