Empty Nest Catastrophe or Transition
This paper discusses couples in midlife marriage that are transitioning to the empty nest. We identify the social aspects of the marriage relationship and the midlife issues most couples face. We look at those that grieve and those that rejoice, when their nest empties, as well as the characteristics of those prone to depression during this major life event. The biological, psychological and spiritual adjustments that take place are analyzed as well as the varied reactions that parents feel during this time of loss in their lives. Lastly, we discuss the role that the Christian counselor plays and celebrate with those couples who have newfound freedom and have reconnected as a result of their nest empting.
Empty Nest: Catastrophe or Transition
Midlife marriage is a comfortable and rewarding time to experience. Most couples have successfully matured and built a great life together. They have a lot to be thankful for and are proud of the family they??™ve raised. One of the major adjustments that occur during this time is when the children they??™ve raised reach maturity and leave home. This marks a new beginning for parents known as the empty nest. In the 70s, sociologists popularized the term ???empty-nest syndrome??? to identify parents, especially mothers who experienced depression and loss of purpose and identity when their children left the nest (Clay, 2003). Although women are mentioned as suffering the most when the nest empties, men suffer too. According to Dr. Ilona L. Tobin (2010) ???Feelings of loss are not exclusive to women. Men feel just as much loss and may actually be less prepared to deal with those feelings??? (para. 5). On the other hand there are parents who look forward to their nest being empty and feel it is beneficial to them and their marriage and to their adult children as well. They enjoy greater freedom, renewed romance and more time to do what they want. Whether parents view the empty nest as a negative time or a beneficial time, most are also dealing with other midlife issues not only in their marriage but health, financial and aging parents??™ issues as well. In addition some couples suffer on their spiritual journey, and are distant from God. There is however, hope and healing no matter what the circumstances maybe. Today most research reflects the empty nest as a positive adjustment for parents. Transitioning to the empty nest is a positive experience that promotes newfound freedom and reconnection for couples.
When does midlife occur Researchers, C.G. Jung (1923), Erikson (1959) and (Shek, 1996; Hopcke, 1992) all support the view of those that hold that the midlife crisis is not age bound. Roberts and Newton (1987) agree ??¦ ???the timing of the phenomenon is relative to racial, class, historical, and especially gender factors??? (as cited in Bennett, 2011, para. 1). This middle adulthood period could be described to occur between 40 and 60 years. During this time tremendous psychological, biological and social changes occur. For women this is a time of loss physically and sexually. Men experience physically loss too, ???but it is not associated with sexual disqualification??? (Bennett, 2011, para. 5) Women experience menopause and some require hormone replacement therapy when symptoms are severe. Men experience andropause but do not seek treatment as frequently as women. Another midlife adjustment for both women and men is their careers. Thirty years ago more women stayed at home and raised their children instead of pursuing careers. For these women in midlife the empty nest gave them the opportunity to… ???become more independent, less affiliative and want to pursue careers outside the home??? (Clelland and Chaytors, 1981, para. 3). However, because the identities of these women were tied to their children they suffered empty nest syndrome more than women today who work outside the home. This same study noted that ??¦ ???men reach the top of their careers and start to question whether it means anything; they tend to become more affiliative and want to spend more time with their wives??? (Clelland and Chaytors, 1981, para. 3). According to a recent study, men today??¦ ???express regret over lost opportunities to be involved in their children??™s lives before they left the nest??? (DeVries, 2003). Relationship issues facing midlife parents can be challenging. According to Claudia and David Arp (2002) the empty nest years ??¦ ???can be a difficult passage for even the most stable marriages??? (para. 8). Sadly, this is the time a lot of couple??™s divorce, only staying together until the children leave home. For other couples the empty nest brings more time together and reconnects them as a couple. Most of these couples have maintained successful communication and friendship throughout their marriage. Still other parents enjoy a more positive relationship with their children after they??™ve left the nest. In a study published in 2000, psychologist Karen L. Fingerman interviewed women and their mothers, she concluded that ??¦ ???Part of the reason for this upsurge may simply be the absence of the day to day stressors that come with living together and the contrast between children??™s often stormy adolescences and their emerging adulthoods??? ( as cited in Clay, 2003, para. 8).
Loss, Grief and Depression
For most parents transitioning the empty nest, a sense of loss is felt. Even those who view this as a positive life event, recognize the empty nest as experiencing the physical loss of their children. Some empty nesters feel as if they are losing a part of themselves.
One Fathers Feelings
I am losing a substantial part of my social self and it will hurt me deeply. I am losing the
social self that is reflected to me by my sons. I am still their father, but I will no longer have
the daily interactions in which they treat me as dad. No one will call me dad, no one will
complain when I wake him in the morning, no one will roll his eyes for my bad jokes at the
dinner table and no one will joke with me about my bad golf shots or inability to dance.
Through occasional visits, text messages, emails, and phone calls, I will still have my ???dad??™
social self reflected to me. But the activation of that social self will be much less frequent.
I??™ve enjoyed being a dad on a daily basis, so losing that daily interaction will hurt and
will change my sense of self. (Hyman, 2010).
In her book, Beyond the Mommy Years: How to Live Happily Ever After??¦ After the Kids Leave Home, Carin Rubenstein (2007) states, ?????¦about 10% of 1000 mothers are more severely affected when their children leave home, and the problem may be more long-term??? (para.8). It could be that these women were already facing other issues and the empty nest compounded their depression (as cited in Tobin, para. 8).
One Mothers Feelings
I am now using Google to describe what I have been going through for the past 5 years.
At first I did not recognize it as depression. But now that I am coming out of the fog of
getting over my children are not only out of the nest but out of the state being the successful
adults that I had always hoped they would be, I am still very empty. I forgot to tell them to be
successful but to stay where my husband and I are. I am beginning to have ambitions again
but after the last 5 years of moving back to my home state, the death of my father, realizing
that my mother has Alzheimer??™s, and my children finding success in completely different
locations I just feel orphaned or something. I hate that I cannot just be happy that my children
are happy, that I have a loving, wonderful husband. I don??™t want to make him feel like he
doesn??™t matter, but there is just a hole in my heart (Yubigo, 2011).
Those Who Suffer
Most empty nesters grieve the loss of their child leaving home for just a short time. However, others find themselves in a prolonged grieving period that they cannot escape. These parents usually have other issues that are contributing to their depression such as menopause, andropause and caring for aging parents as well as other health issues relating to mid life. According to Dr. Ilona Tobin (2010) research shows that parents who suffer the most depression have certain things in common:
1. Believe change is stressful and to be avoided.
2. Their marriage is unstable.
3. They feel their children are too immature to move out.
4. Their self-worth is weak; ???their identity is tied to being a parent.???
5. They had a difficult time moving away from their own parents.
6. They had a difficult time weaning or sending children to school.
7. They are not paid to work at home or outside the home, they are full-time parents.
Those who are having extensive difficulties such as extreme sadness that keeps them at home along with excess crying and feelings of hopelessness should seek professional help in order to get through this difficult time.
Helping Yourself out of Empty Nest Depression
For most empty nesters the adjustment to no more children in the house is not overwhelming. They may be sad for a time but even that passes and life goes on as usual. These parents do not require therapy and are capable of helping themselves out of empty nest depression if it starts to be a problem. Dr. Susan Quinn (2011) shares five helpful steps for those hoping to get out of empty nest depression fast.
1. It??™s ok to feel upset, acknowledge your feelings of loss.
2. Make a list of all the things you never got to do, choose one to begin this week.
3. Connect with friends who have been through what you??™re experiencing and talk to them about your feelings.
4. Journal your feelings and spend time outside each day meditating, it will raise your spirits.
5. If you are overwhelmed, seek professional help.
The Role of the Christian Counselor
The Christian Counselor plays a very important part in helping those in midlife marriages transition the empty nest. Ministering to those in need as Jesus did is vital as well as listening and relying on the Holy Spirit and the Bible??™s teaching as you minister. The role of the Christian Counselor is to help couples prepare for and work through the challenges that present in the marriage relationship during the empty nest years. In their book, The Second half of Marriage, Claudia and David Arp (1996) present eight challenges to help those entering the empty nest years. Challenges, such as: let go of past disappointments, forgive each other, commit to making the rest of your marriage the best, keep communication open, build a deeper friendship and work on growing closer to God are great in helping couples grow closer to each other and in their spiritual walk as well (p. 486-487).
Celebrating the Empty Nest
There are mothers that have successfully transitioned the empty nest, that are now thriving. One such mother, Author Carol Kuykendall (2010) actually dreaded the nest empting and thought her purpose in life would be over once her children flew the coop (para. 1). Today her and her husband have entered their third year as empty nesters and report that life is surprisingly good! She discovered that her empty nest ??¦ ???afforded me increased time for prayer.??? The more time she spent with God, He changed her attitude and the way she responded to this new season of her life. (Kuykendall, 2010, para. 7). She traded in her huge dining table for a small, cozy table with new place mats and candles so that dinner time with her husband was more intimate (para. 9). Other ways she changed their nest was to purchase new sheets, towels and comforter things she neglected because the children needed school clothes or updated wallpaper (para. 10). Carol and her husband are enjoying their quiet time together ??¦ ???thinking, praying or reading without inconveniencing anyone else??? (Kuykendall, 2010, para. 15). She thanks God for blessing her in the season of the empty nest.
In closing, all parents will one day face the empty nest. If they are prepared for this day by keeping the second half of their marriage strong they will transition and the empty nest will not be a catastrophe. For those that are suffering in the empty nest years a Christian counselor can help them get back on track so they can enjoy the more quiet years with their spouse. Keeping God first in their lives will help them to draw closer spiritually while praying helps them to be closer to God and to each other. Writing this paper has helped me to begin the process of preparing for the empty nest that my husband and I will experience in the next eight months. We are looking forward to newfound freedom and reconnecting as we experience marriage without children for the first time in 32 years.
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