How I Feathered My Empty Nest

Psychiatrist Janet Taylor reveals the key things to consider when your last child leaves, drawn from her expertise and her own experience.

Photographer Dona Schwartz captures empty nester 'Jean' in her son's vacant bedroom.

Every empty nest journey is unique. Tell us about yours.

I feel like I'm an empty nester in many ways because at the time my youngest was leaving to go to college, I also was making a decision to get a separation and divorce. I was certainly happy that my four daughters were successfully launched and excited about their own possibilities, but frankly apprehensive and unsure about what my next steps would be. I thankfully have a career, so that was one aspect that would allow me to use my time in a way that would be somewhat distracting and also uplifting, but in terms of my "what's next" there was a lot of uncertainty.

How did you get past that and take the first step?

Therapy. Good friends. And I tried to be inspired by people. I'd read a lot of books about women who faced challenges and just tried to inspire myself. I became more spiritual in terms of going to church and adopting more of a spiritual practice by doing more yoga and meditation.

What has been the most surprising revelation about the empty nest experience?

My ability to take away blame against other people and focus more on understanding myself. That's been my most powerful lesson and one I will continue to build upon. Not just being an empty nester, but also with divorce comes a new opportunity to explore for myself because before I didn't have the time to. And one way to do that is forging a path that really builds on gratitude and a positive future as opposed to trying to avoid pitfalls of the past. So I had to let go of fear and really use my strengths, my wisdom that I gained throughout the years, and also keep a hopeful attitude.

What about the sadness and grief that can accompany an emptying nest?

Everybody's journey is individual. If you experience sadness or grief, or feel some depression or even despair because of a transition or having to realign your roles and your own sense of importance as it relates to people you've taken care of (because empty nesters are not just related to kids; there are many adults who've cared for their elder parents and they no longer have to do that role), that's all normal. It's part of the continuum of life experiences that you're going to have some emotional reaction to the events. What most people find if they're open to not holding on to their sadness and can find new ways to inject joy and excitement and enthusiasm about something new, that the feelings they initially had go away pretty quickly. It's all about openness and all about being able to reflect on your journey, so to speak. If you're someone who tends to go toward the more negative or the "I can't do it" mindset, then think about the things that you have done, and think about what you were doing at that time and how you felt and what it took. You can just grab a little piece of that and keep moving forward in your journey.

Are there any new trends in the empty nest experience?

The divorce rate is going up in individuals who are 50 and 60+, whether that's spurred by women who have more economic stability, who are unhappy in their relationship or have a recognition that they have a certain amount of time left and they want to spend it in a way that's fulfilling, either with a partner or without. Or more than anything, they want to make themselves happy. There's also the notion of the empty nest as a syndrome or disorder that automatically confers some deficit model, and research is showing that if you're in a relationship, in fact your ability to have more freedom with your partner, sexually, you're more likely to be open, there's a certain comfort and security in knowing someone, even if there have been challenges.

Women report higher levels of marital satisfaction and in many empty nest couples it's the man who reports a higher level of sadness or sense of a loss. So if you're a couple, it's something to talk about—how you both are feeling, how you both are communicating, what do we want to do with the rest of our lives, but also to recognize that it may not just be you that is experiencing some of these disruptions, that your husband or partner may be as well, and to acknowledge that in a way that's healthy for both of you.

What are the bigger challenges?

One challenge—to maintain/transition to a healthy relationship with your adult children—needs to be worked on, thought about, evaluated. How you can relate to them in a different way that still is caring and compassionate but also makes you feel like you do not have to rescue them at every moment and give them the ability to make some mistakes. Certainly they can come to you if they have questions, but help them start building the foundation of their own lives.

Any advice on what not to do in the wake of your last child leaving?

Plan out if you're going to make a really big change. Understand that you might all of a sudden have this aha moment—"Oh, this is my time now, I'm going to pack up and move out and make this huge change"—to really think about your financial stability, psychological stability, and as you're moving toward something new, what are you leaving behind? There are ways to organize that thinking and do whatever you can to create either a safety net or have a well thought-out plan so that you don't just move from one situation so shockingly to something else. It's not about holding yourself back by any means, but understanding that you can plan your next step.

Final thoughts?

If you do experience a sense of loss, think about the values you got from that loss. For example, if you're working fewer hours or thinking about retirement, maybe it's not the work that you miss, it's the camaraderie, or of being of service to other people, and there are ways to get back those aspects you value. Maybe you want to volunteer, maybe you want to join a group and learn something new. You look at what you perceive as a loss and see what you can learn from it, so you can continue in a way that still gives you the flexibility that you've earned.

Tags: well being