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Empty nest syndrome as a single parent

When a child leaves home, it's tough on all parents but the challenges are different for a single parent. Here we examine why and what you can do to navigate this potentially tough transition

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Empty nest syndrome as a single parent

When a child leaves home, it’s tough on all parents but the challenges are different for a single parent. Empty nest syndrome is about loss and as single parents, typically the bond is different and potentially stronger with their children. Single parents also don’t have a partner for support.

Without a second parent in the house, there is naturally a tendency for the single parent to communicate and spend more time with their children. For example, a single parent might be inclined to read that extra story at night and fall asleep next to their child without the worry of having to satisfy the demands of the other parent.

A greater reliance on each other and a tendency for joint decision making is another side-effect of single-parent families. Suddenly it’s just about you and your children brainstorming ideas together and discovering what’s best for you as a unit of one parent and kids.

Shared trauma

There is also a common “trauma” that pushes the unit of single parent and children into one of allies in potentially difficult circumstances.

Separation from a partner and parent isn’t typically straightforward and comes with an emotional toll for all concerned. To get through this with minimal damage, takes much effort, understanding, empathy, time, love and connection. And with such journeys, comes a special bond. We know this from any shared experience we have with others, it always strengthens the union.

The departure lounge

On the runway to your children leaving home, there will likely be thoughts of what it might be like without them. For me, this kicked in when my eldest was 14. He is now 18 and leaves home imminently. I literally had a crisis, a searing pain tantamount to grief and cried on many a shoulder. I clearly needed to start processing the inevitability that one day, my children would leave home.

It was also an alarm bell going off telling me to start paving the way for MY next chapter. As a single mum with little support (and no parents), I was in a place where a lot of my time revolved around doing things for my children. I had lots of friends but everything I did was with my kids in mind.

Whilst I dated and had a few short-term relationships, I didn’t want another man playing parent to my kids and so that scuppered the potential for me finding someone who was a good fit for me.

How I prepared for my next chapter

Little by little, I looked ahead and started to plan things for me. This is what I did:

Returned to an office. I decided I needed to get back into an office environment so that I had the support of colleagues and a life away from home.

Pursued my passion. My next mission was to pursue my passion in mental health and helping others. Already a medical journalist, I decided to investigate further training in psychology and found a course in Integrative Counselling and Psychotherapy. This required me to first take a year to pass levels 1 and 2 in counselling skills plus some work experience in mental health. I did both and was accepted on the Masters which I start in a couple of weeks.

As a fun aside, my son and I actually start university at the same time, something I didn’t think would happen in a million years! Not at the same one, I hasten to add. That wouldn’t be healthy.

Volunteered. The work experience was voluntary and this ticked another box. Volunteering is good for the soul and mental health. It provides a purpose, increases self-confidence and can combat depression, amongst many other things.

Started dating. One other thing I did was to become more active on dating sites. I haven’t found a long-term partner but have made a few new male friends and certainly had my share of fun dates. I remain hopeful of finding someone who is truly compatible and available.

Kick-starting YOUR future

If the thought of your children leaving home terrifies you, this might be a prompt to pave the way for your next chapter. Take note of this alarm bell and take action.

It’s potentially a time to engage back into wider society and focus on what would give you purpose and fulfilment.

I would encourage anyone with children to think about this way before their kids start packing up their things.

Ask yourself, what could give you purpose and what are your core values. Knowing what they are and leading a life that helps you to meet these values, will ultimately ensure that you are leading your best, authentic life and it will feel good. You can read in more detail about how to discover your core values in this article which includes a free downloadable worksheet.

Symptoms of empty nest syndrome
(and when to get help)

Before looking at some other tried and tested ways to tackle empty nest syndrome, let’s just look at some typical symptoms. These include:

  • Sadness
  • Loss
  • Depression
  • Loneliness
  • Distress
  • A loss of purpose and meaning in life

If you find that you are crying excessively and for long periods and that your daily life and/or work is disrupted, then it’s important to get some professional help. But whilst you are here, take a look at the suggestions below to see if they help you in the transition.

Ways to Move Forward

With time, most single parents actually report that being an empty nester becomes a positive experience.

If you are struggling with some symptoms (see above), know that there are many ways to process this time and create a meaningful experience.

  • Volunteer or get a job that you feel passionate about. Many studies suggest that parents who have careers tend to have a less difficult time with empty nest syndrome.
  • Talk to a professional. Speak with a counsellor or therapist if your symptoms feel too intense to handle or feel out of control.
  • Connect with single empty nesters through groups or Meetups. Meetup is a website and app that allows people to connect based on similar interests. Groups can be started by anyone, and fun events are planned around the world. Of course they may not be permitted at the time of writing.
  • Get creative. Channel your emotions by doing something creative. Journaling, drawing, painting, coloring, playing music, dancing and singing can all be great options for those looking for an emotional release. These activities can also have the effect of focusing the mind on an activity that keeps you in the present.
  • Find support groups. There are many support groups for single parents, both online and in person, who are seeking help with the emotional toll that empty nesting can have.
  • Seek support. If you’re having a difficult time dealing with an empty nest, lean on loved ones and other close contacts for support and share your feelings. If you feel depressed, consult your doctor or a mental health provider.
  • Stay positive. Thinking about the extra time and energy you might have to devote to your relationships or personal interests after your last child leaves home.
  • Find a coach. Some coaches are dedicated to helping parents going through the empty nest phase of their life. Coach Christine is one example. She claims she can help turn you from freaking out to freaking awesome! You can find out more about Christine here.

Support from others – word of warning!

You’ll find a number of support groups on social media for empty nesters. A word of warning. Please choose carefully. Many only serve as a place to desperate emotions and will likely make you feel worse.

Conversely, there are chat forums and groups that can help to reassure you that what you’re feeling is normal and that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I found this Facebook Group (UK-based) to be a supportive and positive experience: WIWIKAU (What I Wish I Knew About University).

Reframe the empty nest

It’s not good for your children to stay at home and remain dependent on you. You want them to experience life and expand, learn and succeed at life. The alternative is not pretty. Think about that for a moment, what it would look like if they DID live with you forever!

Conversely, it’s not good for you to depend on them. You can’t rely on them to make you happy and fulfil your life. That’s your job. Each stage of life presents unique opportunities. It’s a waste of time looking back at the past, you’ll waste the opportunities in front of you. When your children leave home, it’s time to grab new opportunities with both hands.

Check out this short but inspiring video from Midlife Credo.

Your changing role

Remember that you’ll always be their mum. Whilst they might be leaving to go to college, this doesn’t mean they are leaving your life. It’s so typical for children to return to the family home at various intervals, whether for patches of time or just to visit.

The relationship between you changes from one of mum and child to one of mum and adult. The mothering should stop and the coach and sounding board role can kick in.

Remember, your children haven’t left your life

First of all, we need to remind ourselves that we can continue to be close to our children even when we live apart.

Whilst it might be important to let them settle and find their feet for a while, we can still text, video call, email and even schedule some visits. What student wouldn’t want to be taken out for a good meal?

Remember also that when our children leave home, it doesn’t mean they’re gone forever. Many return home after they graduate, typically with debts, in need of a job and in the context of house prices being out of reach. Of course, at the moment, we have a big question mark over how the virus is going to dictate our lives –  who knows how long they might hang around.

In 1980, 1 in 10 post-graduates in the US moved back home; now, 4 in 10 move back after graduation.  A more recent survey of college seniors found that 85% expect to move back home after graduation.

In research conducted by the National Union of Students in the UK in 2016, 52 per cent of former students on £9,000 per year fees were unable to afford living away from home.

Final thoughts

When all is said and done, our children becoming young adults is the end of an era. It’s appropriate to reflect, grieve and celebrate what has past so the key is to do this and process the thoughts and feelings.

It is, after all, a loss as they leave home, and it might stir up other wounds as we reflect backwards. Remember you’re not alone. Most parents will be feeling this way so reach out to others for support and turn to a professional if you’re really struggling.

At the time of writing, I’m going through a grieving stage so I’m crying a lot and reaching out to others for support. I know I’ll be okay and you will be too but it’s just going to take a bit of time.

The light at the end of the tunnel is that once through this tricky transition, a new relationship will emerge, one of two adults. This is an exciting thought because finally, I might have the privilege of getting to know my adult son and he, might get to know me.

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