Parenthood…it’s one of the most difficult jobs any of us can hold. The people who choose to take on this monumental task are committing decades of their lives, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year—to being parents. Regardless of all of the other roles and responsibilities in their lives, being a parent becomes a large part of their identity. Through all of the trials and tribulations that come with raising children, their parent’s lives become less focused on their marriage and more focused on the lives of their children.
For many couples, this means years of hard work—being a parent, as they prepare their children to one day become healthy, independent adults. Despite the pride and excitement of watching a child grow into an adult, there’s an empty space left (both figuratively and literally) after they’ve moved out of the house.
For some couples, the space that remains is a welcome return to the coupledom they once shared together. However, for many others, the transition into this ‘second half of marriage’ may be more difficult. This is especially true for parents who have had a high involvement in the day to day lives of their children. In her blog, “4 Things They Never Tell You About Empty Nest Syndrome” published by Huffington Post (2013), Shelley Emling discusses her experience after her son left for college. She shared, “I went from knowing what he ate for dinner each night to not knowing whether he’s eating at all.” In my work with couples, I have heard similar sentiments echoed time and time again, particularly when they didn’t plan for, or experience, a gradual separation and individuation before their child moved out.
While this will most certainly be a time of transition, there is much that could be done to avoid dreading the empty nest. Certainly, couples who have been diligent about carving out time for themselves and each other throughout their childrearing years will experience less of a “shock” when the last child moves out. This is generally referred to as a balance of “me time” as well as “we time.” It may be hard to find this balance, but fortunately, it’s never too late to start.
No matter how busy life gets, couples will have to be mindful and intentional about prioritizing time for themselves and each other. Even if it is only once per month, make time for a “date night,” and make an agreement to spend that time cultivating your relationship—and not discussing the kids. Start a “wish” jar, with ideas of things you would love to do together, including activities that may have to wait until you have more time and money in the future. Plan vacations for just the two of you, even if it’s only a long weekend; and try not to spend the time away worrying about the kids at home. Make a plan for regular check-ins while you’re away, but also trust that the caregivers you’ve entrusted to watch them will contact you, when necessary.
Leading up to and following this time of transition, try to recognize that this is a time of new beginnings, for both you and your child. Try to embrace this as a time to take on new and exciting challenges for yourself and new opportunities for your relationship. Take time to explore ways to find joy and inspiration in this new chapter of your life together.
• In the past, what did you wish you had more time for?
• In what ways would you like to challenge yourself or your relationship, to change and grow?
• What opportunities can you explore with your personal life or career, now that you have more time and/or resources?
• How can you explore new activities or experiences with your partner, to reignite feelings of closeness and connection?
• Are there places you’ve always wanted to travel together? If so, how can you begin the process of planning those trips together?
No matter how much time or preparation one might put in to ready themselves for this transition, it’s important to accept and recognize that there may still be a wide range of emotions throughout this transition. From feelings of pride and excitement, to feelings of sadness and loneliness, it’s perfectly healthy to have some or all of these feelings (sometimes within minutes of each other!). Share your feelings with your partner, while being mindful that they may not be feeling the same way. In fact, one of you may be feeling hopeful and excited, while the other is feeling sad and lonely. Be kind and patient—as it’s healthy and natural to experience a range of emotions over time; which may include changing from one end of the spectrum to the other.
Finally, before you start converting their old bedroom into an exercise/media/craft room, be sure that you’ve given them time to settle into their new life—as well as making sure that you’re both ready to recreate the space.