The Empty Nest: Letting Go Into Fullness
Shoshona Pascoe, MFT
The metaphor of the empty nest is a powerful one. So is nesting. My friend's little girl was enrolled in a dance movement class and shy in the process. The teacher had the parents form a nest with their bodies and the children were invited to dance with that "prop". Her daughter's passion was ignited; she danced with gusto, flying from the nest, back in, out again with instinct and pleasure.
Often as a sign that birth is imminent, mothers have a burst of organizing energy, intensely preparing the space, the nest, for the new life about to begin. What we are building as parents is a secure base for our children, a place for them to eventually move out from. This safe haven is what the young leave, a nest that welcomes them home to recharge. A secure base and a safe haven are essential elements in secure bonding, and a foundation for all relationships.
Parents sense when their child leaves home for college, or just because it is time, that life will never be the same again. And that intuition evokes the intense feelings and grief that may surprise us in its force. To have enjoyed and endured the profound journey of parenting, and to love as a parent loves, opens us up to vulnerable loss as life moves on. The form, the nest, we knew is changing. Empty of the habits and fullness that has been life as usual, we pass through an adjusting period that brings up many things, perhaps unnoticed before. Unattended problems in a marriage and unnamed depression, are two common experiences that can no longer be pushed away in the presence of this new stress.
As parents we may grieve as we sit in our child's room and feel the emptiness in the space and in our own heart. The tears that come may surprise us, and it is good to allow that expression of grief and letting go. I remember a particularly intense experience in the grocery store, standing confused, adrift, without bearings for a moment, not knowing what to buy! Here was a place I had efficiently been on automatic pilot for so many years, full in my competence and usefulness. It sometimes takes a few days, a few weeks maybe, or longer to begin to appreciate the delightful order in the house, and the quiet, the simplicity of the meals. How each of us allows the process to unfold depends on our relationship to grief and loss and the changing nature of life.
The passage through this transition may bring up unattended grief or relationship issues that have been ignored. This is an important moment in a couples' growth together. Though some couples recapture the closeness of their early relationship, many others can no longer ignore the attention their relationship requires in order to feel vibrant and alive.
Relationships can benefit from counseling to attend to ingrained patterns and unexpressed needs. Sometimes professional help is necessary to attend to the grief, and feelings that arise. It is important that our children don't take responsibility for our grief; we want them to focus on their own letting go process. Reaching out to friends can be a great support; we are all in this together whether launching our own children or remembering when we were the ones leaving. Father's grief may be less talked about, but no less of a challenge. For everyone physical exercise and self-nurturing habits lead away from unhealthy coping strategies like workaholism, alcohol or drug abuse, or withdrawal and isolation.
Single parents face their own special circumstances. In adjusting to shared custody during separation and divorce, there may have been a sense of premature empty nesting and loss. Weekends or split weeks when the children were away also created a space to pick up the threads of individual interests. This can serve as a template now for reinventing ourselves once again. The years of being sole provider may have felt like a marathon run or climbing a very challenging mountain. The feelings that arise when the children leave home, especially without a partner to share with, can be intense and uncover other layers of grief. Support at this time can be healing and usher in closure on a long period of growth and letting go.
Taking joy in our children's emerging independence contrasts starkly with deeply missing them and the way our lives were connected in their childhood. We begin joined with them in a unique way, as close as human relationship can be. And the letting go, blessing them as they leave us, asks for the most generous kind of surrender. This process evokes the deepest of our vulnerabilities, and takes courage to fully experience. The empty nest can grow into fullness by the way our hearts are woven together. The possibility is that the nest now enlarges, embracing our children whether in college, working abroad, or living nearby. Grieving completely the loss of the day-to-day sharing opens us up to the contentment of a job complete, this stage anyway. We know parenting will continue in a new form as we cultivate a new adult relationship with our offspring. Hold them close and let them go......