Making the Best of an Empty Nest

The time has come for your little hatchlings to leave the nest and fly into the big world. This is a bittersweet time for parents and kids alike as they both have to navigate uncharted territories and new roles. For parents, being an “empty nester” may come as a shock or be a hefty transition after raising children for years.

To help with the change, School Nutrition featured the topic in its June/July 2019 issue in the article “Making the Best of an Empty Nest,” and how this stage can alter the adult-parent relationship. But there is so much more to the issue than just dealing with an empty bedroom and quieter house. Often marriages need a little extra work and single parents can have a much different transition than a married couple.

If this recent graduation season left you an empty nester or you will become one in a few short years, read on to learn how to keep a strong marriage and/or how to navigate this new path as a single parent.

Strengthen Your Marriage

Many parents dream about the lives they will lead once their children leave the home, but after that reality sets in, some couples face the challenge of reinventing their marriage in this second part of life. For many, the adjustment in dynamic of being only a twosome can have a major impact on the relationship. In fact, sometimes problems that began years ago were left unaddressed—consciously or unconsciously—while the children were around. In the light of the new empty nest, they may become painfully evident.

The empty nest doesn’t have to be the catalyst to a “gray divorce” (a marital split after a decades-long marriage). To reduce the risk, be proactive in taking steps to cultivate a healthier and happier marriage.

Communication is key. Make a commitment together that daily communication will be a priority. Find new subjects to discuss that aren’t kid-focused, from the weather to current events in the news to work projects to the novel you’re reading or the hot drama series everyone’s watching. Acknowledge that it’s okay to talk about your feelings, too. This may be a new and initially uncomfortable dynamic for you both, but being honest about the fact that you are in a time of transition is more productive than pretending everything is “fine.” All feelings are valid. If this becomes a struggle, be open to the idea of marriage counseling, knowing that this is a common recourse for many couples at this life stage.

Find balance. In addition to spending more time together as a couple, it’s equally important to be okay with spending time apart. Each partner should set aside time for activities that are not mutually fulfilling, but are very important to the individual.

Become friends. The component of friendship is a key part of marriage—it’s enduring. Like you would for any of your personal friends, invest in your partner’s life and understand what’s important to them.

Focus on fixing the solvable problems. Issues will arise that you will want to tackle, but not every issue can be resolved. Acknowledge and fix what you can. Be open to the idea of letting go of certain areas of impasse or a stalemate. Is it really a deal-breaker issue? Or can you accept it for what it is—agreeing to disagree or allowing room for different temperaments and approaches—with some tolerance and patience? Again, this is where a neutral third-party, such as a counselor, can be helpful.

Empty Nesting as a Single Parent

While transitioning to an empty nest can be a shock for any parent, it can be an even bigger challenge for single parents. Raising a child is a lot of work and with no one else to share the responsibilities, most single parents must truly put their own lives on a long, long hold in order to raise their children. When the kids are gone, the house will be very quiet—and without a partner, it may feel unbearably lonely. While this adjustment may be initially overwhelming, advance preparation is, again, your best approach to ensuring your needs are met and that you are best positioned to make the most of this new lifestyle.

Consider the pros and cons of downsizing. Do you need to stay in the family homestead? Reflect on what you’d sacrifice and what you’d gain by moving to a smaller house or even an apartment (big enough for children who return home to visit, of course). Also, remember that having a roommate isn’t an option exclusive to twentysomethings!

Be methodical in identifying what are likely to be the hardest periods of adjustment, whether that’s a certain time of the day, week or month. You might not feel empty nest syndrome as keenly when you’re busy at work, but the silence might get to you on Saturday afternoons. Target social activities for those particular periods. Take a yoga class, join a film club or volunteer at the zoo.

Are their certain friendships that fell by the wayside when you were busy raising your kids? Reach out to those whom you miss most and suggest a monthly brunch get-together. Similarly, if you put off dating while your children were home, this may be the perfect time to explore ways and means to meet potential partners. Meetups are a great way to connect with others who hold similar interests—or are other single empty-nesters! 

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