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How to handle the pain of being an empty nester

Life is about change. Nothing stays the same. We go through different stages in our lives. We move on and grow through our experiences.

Recently, my husband and I have become empty nesters, after having our “boomerang” kids come backwards and forwards over the years.

What is it about this empty nester stage in our lives that affects us all so much? It seems our life has been consumed by our kids from their conception through to adulthood. Does becoming an empty nester affect women more than men?

As mothers, we spend many years nurturing our children. For the vast majority of us, we would say “hands down” having children was the most fulfilling part of our lives, irrespective of any other achievements in our lives such as business and career.

We put our children first, doing everything that we feel is right for them. We give them opportunities to grow and expand, loving all parts of their journey, the good and the bad. We watch their milestones with bated breath, willing them to success but being the first there when they go through hardships, feeling their pain for them. Sometimes we feel such unconditional love for them that we could burst.

We watch as they get older as they begin to live their lives more independently, desperate to give advice but knowing it’s a fine line between giving advice and them learning through their own experiences.

We feel such pride in them, encouraging them to experience the wonder of life, marvelling at the opportunities they have in this modern, digital, connected world, the world that seems a lot smaller than when we were young.

We encourage them to go on different paths and become independent and curious about the world. We want them to find their own purpose and calling. We marvel at what they are doing. Are these our children? Did they really come from us? We feel such pride.

Then reality hits home. Suddenly our children have flown the coup. The world is smaller and there are so many opportunities to experience life in different countries and follow different paths; so different to when we were young! Everything we, as parents, have encouraged so much. How do we reconcile this new stage of our life? We are in awe of our children but at home we feel an emptiness, a lack.

We need to reassure ourselves. The family values we instilled in our children are alive and well. The world is different now. It is smaller, more accessible and so different to our day.

What now? We know we will always have our kids deep in our heart as they go through their lives. We will continue to be part of their lives and support them whatever paths they take. But what we must not do is live vicariously through them. The next stage of our lives as empty nesters can be so fruitful and satisfying. This is our time to fly.

The poem On Children by Khalil Gibran sums this up so eloquently and beautifully. I encourage all empty nesters to read it:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you.
And though they are with you, they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
Which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite.
And He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hands be for happiness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
So He loves the bow that is stable

Khalil Gibran

Notable replies

  1. Hey Mum, I found this a beautiful and moving article to read. You express the pain and hope of having children so beautifully and in a way that I think so many parents can identify with.

    As “boomerang” children, @Lachlan, @brendanbrown and I have a lot to be thankful for. It’s wonderful to always have a home in Melbourne - or wherever life takes you - for us to come back to. It’s very much been a launching pad for us to live our own lives, embracing all of the opportunities before us as you so eloquently put.

    There must be a lot of longing and pain deep down. But you’ve also got a lot of wisdom to share in how you experience these emotions. I think that many people will read this article and be able to relate to it. And it’s a beautiful poem to finish with.

    @Eleprocon, I don’t think you have any children who have left the nest just yet. But I suppose it’s not too far away.

    @josiah recently had his first child, I believe. This is all a long way off but it would surely be interesting to read.

    @SuzanneTaylor I read on your blog or somewhere you published that it’s difficult having your children living interstate. Did I get that right? Do you have experience of this?

  2. Hello @jeanette and thank you for this article and sharing your family. Our daughters are on the cusp of flight. Zoe has been out of the house this last year in Montana and Sofia is gone more than not. Lately Deborah and I have been home looking at each other, listening to the silence in the house and nodding in recognition as to the emptiness. From the day of their birth I have seen the journey as that of separation as they get further from us. Yet, with the strong relationships we have there is a new, different type of closeness forming, that of strong individuals who bring so much to the circle of our family and respect for each other. But you are correct, I have felt that my commitment to my family which was about them as children needing my protection and guidance put them above all. But now that they are out managing life themselves we have a new obligation to ourselves to figure out what’s next. These are the questions we are now asking. The answers these days still include extra beds. :wink:

  3. Avatar for josiah josiah says:

    This is a beautiful post @jeanette.
    Thank you for tagging me @justinbrown.
    Although I’m just beginning the journey of parenthood, I often reflect on the arc of it.

    Related, (perhaps amplified by words I’ve heard in line with @jeanette’s) there’s a Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows video on “Des Vu” that sums up a lot of what I’m feeling lately. I’ve often felt this way before, but I feel it a lot more now.
  4. I tuned into this artist’s poetic #senseof #wordplay a while ago and really appreciate his ideas and approaches to getting his point across. Beautifully done. Sounds like #omnidirectionalcommunication to me :wink:

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Written by Jeanette Clare

I'm an Executive Manager in a large Education Institute in regional Victoria, Australia. I'm also an experienced coach who is passionate about people achieving their goals, whether it be in the workplace or in their personal lives. Check out my ideas on my Ideapod profile.

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