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Renovating the empty nest

Published on: September 01, 2005

Even well-prepared parents can be blindsided by the intense emotions that arise when our fledglings take flight. One day we're kissing boo-boos; the next, writing college tuition checks. Perhaps the biggest surprise is how the relationship of the two people left in the nest is transformed, too.

After years of pedal-to-the-metal parenting, couples may feel disoriented when that focus is gone. "Where marriage issues have been pushed under the rug -- now they come out," says Seattle psychologist Laura Kastner, Ph.D., author with Jennifer Wyatt, Ph.D., of The Launching Years, a book about parenting young adults.

As parents navigate the changed marital landscape, empty-nest grief can surface when least expected. While grocery shopping, a patient of Kastner's burst into tears when she realized she didn't need to buy five boxes of cereal for her son anymore. Although conventional wisdom says moms suffer more than dads when a child leaves home, they may be better off, Kastner says. "Women talk about it for years. Between anticipating and talking about it, they are addressing and adapting to it. Men are often not dealing with their feelings in the same direct way."

Shoreline writer Colleen Bollen, mother of two grown sons, agrees. "It was a big adjustment, but I felt I had intensely parented, was very involved and did everything I could, so when it came time to let go, I could do it." Her husband Alan, a webmaster for Boeing, had a harder time. "It came as a surprise to him. He wasn't as intensely hands-on every day, so he didn't know some day it would end. And all of a sudden it was over."

As the Bollens worked to recalibrate their lives together, unexpected benefits emerged: renewed energy and creativity. Colleen has learned Jin Shin Jyutsu, a form of gentle Japanese acupressure; Alan is studying graphic arts. "I found I had more free brain space," Colleen says. "I'd been holding everybody's schedules in my mind: what they had to do, where they had to be, what I had to do to help."

John Judd of Edmonds retired early and his wife, Teresa, adjusted her nursing schedule to homeschool their two daughters. One is now married, and the other is heading off to college. For the close-knit family, adapting to the empty nest was tough. "It's made it a little harder to say goodbye," John says. Teresa adds, "It's a kind of grief, although intellectually you know it's right and good."

Still, the couple is enjoying this new phase. "I feel like we've gotten closer," Teresa explains. "Growing kids up takes all your effort. Everything's about them. It's fun now just to focus on each other more." The Judds have taken up volkswalking and see home remodeling and travel in their future.

When children have difficulty transitioning to independence, even solid marriages are stressed. "Boomerang kids," who experience bumpy takeoffs to adulthood, land back home with problems ranging from immaturity to substance abuse. "Parents that put energy into their own future have to put it on hold again," Kastner says, adding: "If a problem brought the kid home, that problem came with them."

When everyone else's child seems to be sailing through Harvard or the Univerisity of Washington, it's easy to feel isolated. Psychologist Phil Abrego and his wife, Martha, a physical therapist, faced this challenge with two of their three children. Launching their sons did not go smoothly. Unready to handle college, the boys dropped out. The couple sought counseling to decide what and how much help to give, and when to let the boys take responsibility for themselves.

"We came together as a team; we were pretty united," Phil says. In a support group with families undergoing similar challenges, they worked out a contract with the kids. "We told them we would provide health insurance for the first year and help with college after they made it on their own for a year," he says, adding that both boys are making progress toward that goal.

The Abregos are exercising more and taking vacations, including one recently to the Grand Tetons. "We considered moving to make a fresh start," Phil says, "but we discovered we really like our house; we don't want to move. So we're remodeling, a kind of symbolic 'taking back the house.'"

The Bollens also appreciate the freedom from being on-call parents. "Now, we go for a walk every night; if we feel like stopping for dinner, we just do it," Colleen Bollen says. And during their walks, they savor the unfolding of this new phase of their marriage.

The key to making it work, she says, is to "talk and leave lines of communication open. Do things together and maintain separate interests, nurture each other; realize it's a chance to focus on your dreams vs. your children's dreams."

Kastner quotes parenting guru Barry Brazelton: "'Be a person first and a parent second.'" She adds, "try new things; jump right in; do whatever is necessary to connect. It's an unfortunate term, 'empty nest'; there's still another person in it. I call it the roomier nest."

Nancy Thalia Reynolds, author of Adopting Your Child and Going Places: Alaska and the Yukon for Families, has a son entering college and a daughter in high school.

Tips for transition to an empty nest

  • Give yourselves permission to miss your child. Honor each other's styles of grieving and coping.
  • Make a list of everything you wanted to do but couldn't because you had kids. Start at least one new activity together.
  • If you're having a rough transition, seek professional counseling.

Ask your doctor for a referral. Many churches and other religious organizations host family support groups that are often free.


  • The Launching Years. Laura Kastner and Jennifer Wyatt
  • Loving Midlife Marriage. Betty Polston and Susan Golant
  • Publisher of Empty Nest On-Line Magazine; also hosts a forum for mothers struggling with empty-nest issues.

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