How to navigate the transition to an empty nest

As parenthood takes on a new guise, open yourself up to change and let your empty nest grief give way to opportunity, writes Yasmina Floyer.

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As parenthood takes on a new guise, open yourself up to change and let your empty nest grief give way to opportunity, writes Yasmina Floyer.

When I was sixteen, the swell of my life beginning to expand was palpable, the world opening up like a treasure trove. I was enamoured by books and American campus-based dramas, each one set to the backdrop of russet and gold leaves, so that I believed university took place in a state of perpetual autumn – a place I couldn’t wait to get to.

There was a readiness within me to be the main character of my own life. I assumed a reciprocating process would take place once I was a parent; that as my children grew up, the cloying love, the choking worry that grips you when they are babies, would ease into a mutual readiness for them to move out. But with my own child approaching this stage, I’ve discovered that there isn’t a mutual process taking place for me, that my feelings are far more complicated.

My eldest will sit GCSEs this year, so the reality that she will be leaving home in the not-too-distant future has started to bleed into my consciousness like a dark stain, filling me with a sense of anticipatory grief. From the moment our children are born, we mark key moments of their lives with rituals that help them to metabolise the transition from one life stage to the next: the tooth fairy when their baby teeth fall out, birthday parties, graduation ceremonies, not to mention the support that goes into preparing teens to become independent enough to leave home. But what of parents and caregivers? How do we navigate this transition?

I spoke with psychotherapist and host of The Dream Boat podcast, Laura Payne, about a recurring dream I’ve had since becoming a mother, of being at a train station and separated from my children. Over the years, this dream has taken on new iterations, from being on a departing train and seeing my children on the platform, to my daughter being on a different carriage that, to my horror, separates and continues along a different track. No matter the variation of the dream, it ends with the train moving away, separating me from them.

“We often think of separation anxiety from a psychodynamic point of view involving childhood, but forget that the parents experience this as well, often called empty-nest syndrome,” Payne explains, adding that it is not only being separated from your child that causes these feelings, but also a separation from your old way of living.

Being a working mother, I feel conflicted by the thought of having an ‘empty nest’. Whilst I am sad at the thought that my children will not live with me one day, the idea of having more ownership over my time without the restrictive metronome of family life dictating the rhythm of my days excites me.

Behavioural and data scientist, and author of (M)otherhood (Canongate, £9.99), Dr Pragya Agarwal, speaks to me of the importance of acknowledging the way our roles change as children become adults and step out of the home, carving their own independent lives: “It is important to acknowledge that this change can affect people in different ways. Some mothers might struggle to carve/regain their own independent identities away from their role as a mother, while some might feel relief and joy at gaining more control over their space and time.”

Dr Agarwal validates my feelings, telling me that mothers in particular, who have borne the burden of childcare and are more often much more engaged and present in their children’s lives, can experience mixed emotions: “After a long time of being the primary caregiver, this time can bring uncertainty, because we are no longer needed as much, and don’t know what is happening in our children’s lives.

“It can also bring feelings of guilt and sometimes the internalisation of the feeling of being a ‘bad mother’, because we are no longer able to care for our children in the same way. I feel like this is another of those transformational periods that should have a name, where we are once again being born as our own person, separate from our children.”

Unlike when I was a teen and had to look no further than books and movies to find depictions of what my possible future could look like, as a mother I have no such blueprint for the shape my life will take once raising children is no longer the central focus. For years, popular culture has instructed women that our destination point is marriage and motherhood, billing them as the ‘happily ever after’. I never thought to question that ‘happily ever after’ comes at the end of the story, the narrative conclusion. It is no wonder, then, that some of us struggle to imagine – or even fear – the reality of an empty nest.

Dr Agarwal reinforces the role that identity plays at this crucial time, telling me that whilst it is an important aspect, motherhood is only one part of our identity: “When the moment comes when children are adults and move away, we often mourn the loss of ourselves – the lives we had to give up, the lives we didn’t live, the parts of ourselves that we don’t recognise anymore – more than the fact of our children moving away.”

Dr Agarwal adds that if we parent with a firm belief that our children are not an extension of us, or that our only, or primary role, is to be a parent, then we could be better prepared for this transition. “I always say that if our children don’t need us, then we are raising them well,” she says. “Being a parent can often become our only identity, but it shouldn’t be. If we keep this moment in mind long before it comes around, and prepare ourselves for it by making sure we are doing things we want to do – nurturing hobbies and activities, finding communities, growing and evolving – then I feel we might see this as a moment of joyful transformation for our children as well as for ourselves.”

I’ve come to realise that a large part of my anxiety around my eldest leaving home is a worry that she will be okay. Raising our children in order that they may thrive independently of us, yet being there to catch them when needed, is a delicate balance to achieve, especially during exam season. The rise in poor mental health in teens is well documented, so this is understandably a concerning time for many families. Leading child psychologist Dr Alison McClymont details the way in which anxiety and poor mental health manifest within teens, encouraging parents and caregivers to look out for the following:

  • A change in sleep patterns.
  • An intense focus on revision.
  • A change in eating patterns.
  • Intense focus on comparison between themselves and classmates.
  • Catastrophising the future in relation to exam results.
  • Intense anxiety around imagined exam results.
  • Panic attacks related to going to exam rooms.

Having a background in teaching in secondary schools and working closely with teens throughout my career has afforded me valuable insights into how we can support them around this time. I have found it useful to explain to my teen that experiencing some pressure is not a bad thing, as this can be a normal response to the circumstances, like looming mock exams, for example.

Feeling stressed, however, is different, as this is defined by a feeling of being out of control and overwhelmed. Encouraging relaxed check-ins, where my teen reflects on how she is feeling, helps me as a parent to assess how to best support her, particularly in terms of planning and organising her revision, ensuring she is resting enough, and getting to sleep at a decent time. These conversations also help her to develop her ability to create space for observing her emotions and articulating her needs.

As important as this key time is in their lives, nothing is more important than their wellbeing. If needed, exams can always be retaken. “Above all remind them that their best will always be good enough,” Dr McClymont adds. “The key point here is to encourage them to see that whilst these exams do seem like the be all and end all right now, the likelihood is they will not be the be all and end all of their future.”

Recently, I’ve been having another recurring train dream, except this time something has shifted. Again, we are rushing for the train. We board and I realise I am not with my children. This time, however, the train hasn’t pulled away. For the first time in almost 16 years of having this dream, I find them, and they are completely okay, my daughter calmly telling me she has everything under control.

Laura Payne explains that we are the architects of our dreams, rather than the passive recipient of them. “I love the fact that you have resolution in the most recent version of the dream,” says Payne, “that you unconsciously recognise somewhere that you have changed the story.” This tells me that, on a subconscious level at least, I know that she is ready, that she will be okay.

Feeling bereft at the thought of this stage of motherhood shifting into something else, something unknown, can exist alongside other feelings, like that excitement I spoke of. I realise that I haven’t given myself space to explore these feelings, and that I really ought to. I am not 16, and my future aspirations no longer involve carrying around books on campus during autumn. When I think of autumn now, I allow myself to imagine being in Paris, or perhaps a writing retreat, or learning another language… slowly, slowly conjuring up a new blueprint for this next stage of life.

Dr Alison McClymont is the UK’s leading child psychologist. She has been at the forefront of children’s mental health for over a decade. dralison mcclymont.com

Dr Pragya Agarwal is a behavioural and data scientist, and the founder of research think-tank The 50 Percent Project, which examines gender and racial inequities around the world. She is the author of several award-winning books. drpragya agarwal.co.uk

Laura Payne is an integrative psychotherapist, life coach and author. She has a special interest in dream work, with an Advanced Certificate in Dream Interpretation from the Dream Research Institute (DRI) in London, where she lectures. She is also co-host of The Dream Boat podcast. laurapayne.co.uk

Words: Yasmina Floyer