Empty Nest Syndrome: A Midlifer’s Opportunity For A New Beginning
“I promise I’ll text you when I land.”
Nothing prepares you for the gut punch of empty nest syndrome. A lifetime’s worth of birthdays, parent/teacher meetings, milestones, and tiny, precious moments have led to this point – your little ones are turning not-so-little and flying the nest.
You’re proud, sure. But you didn’t count on how much empty nest syndrome would hurt.
From a house full of life, energy, and youth, your home is left with a numbing sense of loss and emptiness. Suddenly, it’s just you and your partner – and you realize that you’ve no idea what to say to them.
There’s a fear that runs through you: were you just together for your child? Now that it’s just the two of you, can your relationship go the distance?
Your phone chimes. It’s the text you were waiting for, but it’s disappointingly brief:
Landed safe and sound
C u soon
So goes the pattern of every call and message from now on. If you get ten minutes on the phone, you’re lucky.
When you call your parents, the conversation is short because they’re getting on in years and their brains are foggy. When you contact your children, the chat is quick because they’re getting on with their lives.
Even when they visit, you’re not the only people they’re seeing. They’d rather spend their spare time at an Airbnb on the beach with their lifelong buddies rather than their parents. (Back in the day, members of Team Vippi have gotten into protracted fights with their parents on returning home from college because they also met up with old school friends instead of sticking around the house.)
All of your energy and purpose have gone into creating a multi-faceted, self-reliant human being who could strike out on their own. You now have none left for yourself. They were your whole world; you were only ever thinking about what’s next for them.
But what’s next for you and your partner in this new phase of empty nest syndrome? You can’t ignore the fragility of the situation. Meals with just the two of you seem less eventful and meaningful, somehow. Quieter. Your routine has shifted or vanishes altogether.
For one member of Team Vippi going through empty nest syndrome, this translated to the strange experience of missing the familiar sight of their clothes in the tumble dryer. They began to miss the nurture and nourishment aspects of parenthood. Also, they didn’t want to get in the way but understandably, felt the pain of separation.
You want to see your child succeed. But you want to see them, too. And that sacrifice is the trademark of parenthood. The way to see you and your partner through empty nest syndrome is simple: treat this as a coming-of-age tale for all of you, not just the child who’s left for pastures new.
Even though you’re going through turmoil, you have to pick yourselves up – and quickly. You don’t stop being a role model when you stop seeing them daily. Children don’t like to see their parents slouch – they’d rather see you in an inspired and thriving state.
Team Vippi will walk you through how to maintain an active and constructive lifestyle throughout empty nest syndrome.
Signs you’re experiencing Empty Nest Syndrome
Kids don’t stay this cute forever, and, one day, they really do leave.
In the run-up to the day your offspring flies the nest, you might be hit with a few conflicting feelings, like pride in their achievements, the excitement that you’ll finally have some peace around the house, and a bittersweet ache in your chest.
But once they leave, it can become a different experience altogether if you let it. According to the Mayo Clinic, Empty Nest Syndrome may contribute to:
- Marital disputes and conflict
- Full-blown identity crises
While no doctor is about to diagnose you with Empty Nest Syndrome, it is a recognizable phenomenon – a form of grief that leads into a period of adjustment. You’ll feel emotional angst and an emptiness hanging over the house that seems inescapable.
What you’re probably feeling, though, is less the loss of your child – they’re still very much living life to the fullest extent – and more the loss of routine. From standing pitchside at weekend baseball games to ferrying your child around like a personal Uber driver, much of your focus has gone into your child’s day-to-day activities.
Loneliness isn’t easy to label as a mental health condition, so it hasn’t gotten a lot of press in recent years. But COVID reaffirmed just how powerful and demotivating loneliness can be. And even though you’ve got your partner around, you can still feel deep and profound loneliness with that loss of energy around the house.
But you can fight loneliness just fine – you have each other, remember. You just have to reframe what made you a great pairing in the first place.
How to cope: Re-learning your partner
Aah, together at last. No demands or distractions. You should feel, somewhat ironically, like teenage lovers whose parents have gone away for the weekend – all mischievous and spontaneous.
So why has a weird distance grown between you? You may no longer know what to do with each other now that your entire existence doesn’t revolve around meeting your child’s needs.
Usually, one partner feels more lost, helpless, and lonely than the other – often the partner who’s had more of a hand to play in the nurture aspects of your child’s development.
(Sure, you’ve both been awesome parents – no one doubts that. But one of you has done more washing and food shopping, and that’s the parent who’s going to be consistently faced with reminders and triggers. They may see your child’s favorite brand of chips at Trader Joe’s and burst into tears.)
This means that the other parent needs to lead the charge for inspiration, positivity, and suggestions for activities to try together.
It’s not only about doing new stuff together – take the time to relearn each other. Talk for hours. Joke around. Have the odd food fight. Start doing strange things out of the blue for no reason – from arranging surprise weekends away to preparing meals completely naked.
You have a deep and enduring love, a portion of which you’ve donated to your offspring to help them flourish. Now, it’s time to recenter that love around the two of you. And the foundation for your love, in the beginning, will almost always have been fun and adventure.
It’s time to reclaim your sense of togetherness.
How to embrace freedom with your partner
“Let’s go out.” “But… where do we go?”
No need to rush home from weekends away. No one to complain about your cooking loudly. You can re-embrace that togetherness and exploration you felt in your early days before children anchored you to your parenthood routine.
Here’s the thing: You don’t need to feel limited to specific hobbies or pastimes. All you need to do is have discussions and see where they lead. Book regular trips away where budget permits – and if budget is limited, go camping or take shorter, more local excursions.
Activities to try together can be as simple as going out for a movie and a meal. Realistically, though, you should try to engage in activities that chill you out and also build you up physically, helping you to feel younger, fitter, and more ready to embrace your new beginning together.
Yoga, meditation, and, y’know, a lil’ tantric sex (😉) never hurt anybody. Seeing a personal trainer and finally dedicating time to your bodies can be freeing and empowering. Time spent on yourselves with no other obligations is an amazing rush.
Even going on runs together can have you pursuing a common goal together. You can, once more, discover purpose outside of your children and jobs.
Other areas to which you can turn your attention as a couple include:
- Entrepreneurship. (More on this below.)
- Volunteering. Miss the nurturing side of parenthood? Turn that ethos toward a local cause that needs it. Join a food bank or put in hours at the local dog shelter. Even engaging in fundraising activities like runs or sponsored events for a cause you care about can lift you in these times.If you’re looking to volunteer, volunteermatch.org can help you find opportunities to help out in your local area.
- Community engagements. Become a pillar of the neighborhood. Throw socials and barbecues, offer to help wherever you can, and invite your neighbors over to dinner.
- Your social life. Your friends are still around and may be in similar positions if they’re of similar ages – reconnect with them on a deeper level. Go on couples’ getaways. Spend real time with them. Initiate meaningful conversations instead of making small talk.
- Me-time. Put in some time being creative and engaging your mind. Or simply relax – light some candles, fill that bath with Epsom salts, and chill the f*ck out. When was the last time you were able to do this? Bliss.
- Us-time. Become “yes” people. If your partner suggests doing something, be all the way down for it. Go on walks in nature and chill out with each other. Dedicate real time to being with each other, and we guarantee you’ll start to relearn what it’s like to be in a fun relationship.
- Sex. Yes, your sex life might feel like it’s been on hold. No, that doesn’t need to remain the case. Many people who experience an identity crisis might start wondering if their partner’s really for them. How about cracking open a bottle of wine, dimming the lighting, and playing some strip poker? Or engage in a little mutual masturbation? Honestly, what’s the worst that could happen?
What if your relationship comes unstuck from empty nest syndrome?
The marriage or long-term partnership has a second chance – but it’s also a window for break-ups, given that the structure of the nuclear family has come a little untethered.
One member of Team Vippi experienced this themselves: they went to college from a household that seemed unified, then saw the house of cards tumble down pretty quickly once their parents were alone together. The first time they came home from college, they visited two different households and slept on their dad’s sofa.
Sometimes, an empty nest can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It’s important to talk to your partner, possibly with professional mediation like a marriage therapist, to make sure that separation is a step you truly want to take given the extreme emotional circumstances.
Pro tip: If you’re on the verge of splitting up ahead of the Empty Nest, be open with your children. From personal experience, the guilt a child will feel on seeing their family split upon their departure from the household stays with them for a long time.
Why not try entrepreneurship together?
As we mentioned above, there are worse things you can do as a newly Empty-Nested couple than start a business together.
What a way to strengthen your bond, use your time productively, and problem-solve together. The aunt and uncle of a Team Vippi member started a luxury eyewear brand together that had been bubbling away during their children’s early years. Finally, they had real time to dedicate to the project – and it was a great success.
They learned from the experience that there’s no such thing as a CEO in a business that’s grown from a marriage. One partner served as the creative mind behind the frame designs and marketing, and the other focused on pulling the company together, building relationships, and finding leads.
There will be, generally, one Chief Operations Officer and one Chief Marketing Officer. Monetizing a project together involves intellect, constant productivity, constructive feedback, negotiating skills, and the ability to balance your mindsets and experiences.
In short, it’s a way to redefine your relationship constructively.
You’ll also find new ways to resolve questions relating to the business. A good filter for decisions, for example, is this – is the activity making or losing money? If it’s losing money, how will that lead to making money in the future? You allow yourself to move forward without getting caught up in discussions for too long.
Benefits of entrepreneurship for a newly liberated couple from empty nest syndrome
So how is entering the world of entrepreneurship together good for you? Surely you should spend your time chilling out together? Well, not exactly. There’s a lot of hard work to do when rebuilding a relationship, whether you choose to take the business route or not.
You might as well make money and reap the benefits while you’re doing it. The benefits of collaborative entrepreneurship during Empty Nest Syndrome include the following:
- You tap into and learn to appreciate each other’s strengths. Oddly, the collaborative, business side of your lives can fuel the romantic side. You’ll see sides to your partner you’d forgotten about for 10+ years.
- You’re together for a purpose, similar to raising a child. Every business involves nurturing, nourishing, and guidance. Plus, you’ll make mistakes and learn to conquer them together, just like bringing up a child.
- Business success is straightforward to monitor. Business is a numbers game. This makes it easier to track. If your business is doing well, it means that you’re communicating well and redeveloping synergy.
- Doing business stimulates your intellect and energy. You’re embracing that creative, problem-solving spark that defined your early years together.
- It gives you a new purpose. You weren’t only put on this planet to rear children, whatever evolution tells you. Going into business together can help you retain a sense of purpose and direction.
- Entrepreneurship keeps you busy, productive, and disciplined. Keeping your minds engaged is vital for staying focused and working through Empty Nest Syndrome as a team.
- Starting a business increases your network. This creates an opportunity to build a new network of like-minded folks and enhance your professional and social life.
What about when your kids come back home to live with you?
Ugh. According to the most recent research, 15% of millennials are likely to return home to live with their parents.
In a state of missing your children and wallowing in the feelings around Empty Nest Syndrome, you might be relieved at this news.
However, you may be one of the many people that work through your feelings after your last child leaves and come out the other side liberated and reunited with a happier version of themselves. So when your children move back home, it can feel like a regression.
No child moves back home out of choice. They’re usually in either a professional or financial bind. One member of Team Vippi had all four children move back in at various points and for different lengths of time.
This might seem like a dream to empty-nesters – they’re back! Finally! But it was actually far from ideal.
They’d actually gone through quite an intensive period of recovery and readjustment once the final child moved out.
On their return, the children’s negative traits were amplified. They left their underwear scattered around the guest room. An angsty attitude returned with them – multiplied by a factor of 10 because of their stressful situation. They acted like they’d come to stay in a hotel, making demands and refusing to chip in with chores. The children’s struggles once again became their parents’ struggles.
By the end of it, Empty Nest Syndrome felt like sweet relief. It wasn’t until all children were with long-term partners and older than 27 years that the members of Team Vippi were finally able to throw themselves into their life again.
You will always love your children, but they have to respect your space as co-adults. Here’s how to make sure that your children aren’t infringing on your freedom for too long after they leave:
- Set boundaries. Whether it’s a time limit or a conditional agreement (like they can stay with you so long as they’re working and earning a way back out), make sure they know about your lines in the sand – and don’t bend on them.
- Make sure they contribute. Whether you have your children paying rent or working around the house to justify their living under the same roof, you have to make sure that they’re not just taking advantage of a free ride. It’s your way of being cruel to be kind.
- Request alone time. You may well be engaged in routine activities, like a regular exercise class or games night with another couple. In this case, know that you’re all adults and that they’ll have to respect your space. On nights where you have friends over, they can’t just sit in the living room watching TV.
- No getting drunk or stoned around the house. They may bring home some bad habits from college. Don’t judge them for it – we’re sure you made questionable decisions during higher education, too. Do, however, put a pin in those behaviors while they’re under your roof. They need focus and resilience, and leaning on crutches won’t help them.
Repositioning empty nest syndrome as an opportunity
What has fallen by the wayside, however, are your wants and needs. Instead of seeing your child’s departure for college as a cause for grief, take the time to reposition it as a time of connection.
It’s best to see an empty nest in the following light:
- Life with a child = a seemingly endless to-do list
- Life after they move out = an ever-evolving to-be list
A to-do list involves a carousel of chores, obligations, and requests. That’s part of parenthood.
A to-be list, on the other hand, is far more focused on your own overarching goals. Ask yourself questions like:
- What do you define as success?
- Do you know what makes you happy?
- What would you like to recapture in your relationship?
- What does your ideal living space look like?
A to-be list is about fulfilling an idealized vision of yourself. How will you make the most of that time now that there’s less cooking, cleaning, and chauffeuring to do? And, more importantly, who will you become?
Your child leaving home is a good thing. It means you’ve raised a capable, blossoming human who’s entered the world on their terms. It’s why you put so much love and energy into raising them right. It’s just a shame they leave such a vacuum in their wake.
Acknowledge the feelings, sit in them for a while, and talk about them with your partner. Then, embrace your newfound freedom, go out on dates and getaways whenever you like, and even combine your skills in a business operation.
Whatever you set your mind to, make sure it fulfills your to-be list and not only a vague to-do list.
Empty nest syndrome. (2020). https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/empty-nest-syndrome/art-20047165
Morin, E. (2021). 5 signs and symptoms of empty nest syndrome. https://www.verywellfamily.com/signs-of-empty-nest-syndrome-4163787
Abate, C. (2017). How parents can cope with “Empty Nest Syndrome”. https://www.healthline.com/health-news/cope-with-empty-nest-syndrome
Share of 25-35 year olds living with parents in the U.S. 1964-2016 by generation. (2020).