Empty Nesters Advised to Plan for Life After Kids Leave Home

From Kathryn Streeter , USA TODAY 

Using my phone’s speech-to-text feature in a recent exchange with a friend on the difficulties of the empty-nest season, I glanced down to check for accuracy before sending. My device transcribed “emptiness” instead of “empty nest.” Ironically, emptiness is exactly what many feel after their final child leaves home.

Author Melissa Shultz interviewed 50 women of diverse backgrounds and circumstances for her book From Mom to Me Again: How I Survived My First Empty-Nest Year and Reinvented the Rest of My Life. The one thing all interviewees shared was a powerful love for their children. As a result of this love, when children leave home their absence can produce a sense of emptiness, Shultz explains.

“Kids bring this fantastic chaos with them and when they go, it’s like all the air goes out of the room,” she says.

Shultz empathizes, recounting how she and her husband asked, “Now what?” on their first night home after dropping their youngest off at college.

“Start fresh things in your own life together a couple years before your last child graduates,” advises clinical psychologist Margaret Rutherford, who hosts the SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford podcast. You’re giving your child a lovely gift when you successfully move forward, she says.

Christie Turnbull, of Indiana, and her husband, Greg, are redirecting the energy they gave their children as they near empty-nest status. The Turnbulls have four children, and only one remains at home.

“While it’s sad to think about how quickly time has passed, it’s also been fun to see our kids enjoy where they are and where they’re headed,” Turnbull says. “We’ve always loved investing in the lives of teens, and with our extra time our focus is to be more intentional about continuing that with kids in our community.”

If Rutherford’s patients resist the shift in priorities, saying they’ll miss out if they don’t focus 100 percent on their teen, she’s bullish.

Having friends is also vital because your spouse can’t possibly meet your every need, Rutherford says.

Cultivating fun, trustworthy companions to walk by your side is especially important for single parents, she counsels. Seek out those with shared interests so that you’ll “already have people in your life who enjoy doing the things you enjoy doing” and appreciate you as an individual, outside your role as a parent.

Develop a communication plan because couples grieve differently. “My sense of loss was different than my husband’s, but no less significant,” Shultz acknowledges.

Rutherford explains that the parent experiencing the most detachment might want more contact with the child. Her advice is to develop a three-prong communication plan that will honor the most affected parent, the parent who is more ready and the child.

With each of these perspectives in mind, “Sit down and develop a plan before the child leaves so everybody knows what’s going to happen,” says Rutherford.

Shultz also strongly advocates for an early, honest conversation about maintaining the connection “comfortably felt as a family under one roof.” Stress that it’s important you stay connected, albeit in a new way.

Parents should get professional help, if needed. Fighting can erupt from the stress of pending change. Don’t be frantic, says Rutherford.

If signs of clinical depression appear, get help, urges Rutherford, whose next book, Perfectly Hidden Depression, will be released later this year. Depression can be relentless, overwhelming you with a lack of life purpose and causing you to lose interest in everything.

It’s an emotional time and Shultz cautions, choose your words carefully. “(Kindness) is the No. 1 trait of happy couples,” she says. Overall, be stubbornly optimistic about what’s ahead, she encourages, and rewire your thinking to expect the empty nest to reveal strengths, not weaknesses.

Shultz advises couples to plan their empty-nest phase in whatever way works best for them. “There’s no wrong way to do it as long as you are making plans and moving forward.” It’s a teachable moment, Shultz says, because just as you want your kids to move forward in life, so should you.

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