When a Facebook friend asked me to consider a post addressing the "empty nest" syndrome, I felt somewhat daunted to begin with. After all, I do not have children of my own and am not anywhere near the age, at which women may feel concerned about it. But then I thought that the "empty nest" issue is not really isolated to moms and dads of grownup children. If we view it as the case of disorientation due to a sudden change in one's life situation, something similar can happen to others: people who are newly divorced, people whose closest friends or family members pick up and move a long distance away, or people who themselves move to a strange place far away from their usual circle. Essentially any situation, which causes us to question roles and routines we have become accustomed to can lead to similar feelings of confusion and depression.
I experienced something similar, when I first moved to the States. My mother died when I was fourteen years old after being sick for a year and a half. So, since the age of twelve, I was accustomed to being a nurse, a caretaker and a housekeeper. After mom's death, I continued running the household and taking care of my dad. I was now my father's daughter, as well as his secretary and accountant, not to mention his maid. I do not want to sound as if my father was exploiting me - it's just that he had to work to provide for us both and was frequently gone 12 - 14 hours a day, so he simply didn't have time for all the household stuff. I was also a devoted granddaughter to my grandparents - a focus of all their hopes and dreams after the death of my mother and - two years later - my aunt. I had to evolve into something grand, something amazing, something that would compensate for all the things that my mom and my aunt didn't live long enough to do.
Having arrived to the United States at the age of nineteen, I did not suffer from the culture shock (I was fairly cosmopolitan by then) but rather an inner shock of "what am I supposed to do now". Sure, I was expected to continue with my college education - but I was already going to college in Ukraine. Aside from that, suddenly I had no one else to take care of other than myself. There was no large apartment to clean - just my little dorm room. There were no endless navy blue uniforms and white shirts to iron (dad worked at our city's airport and wore a uniform) - just my tiny capsule wardrobe from Ukraine to keep tidy. I was still expected to write fat letters to my family in Ukraine about all my grand achievements, but that wasn't anywhere near to keeping them happy practically 24/7.
I must admit, I have done a lot of stupid stuff that year. Some of it I regret, but in hindsight, I suppose most of it was necessary to redefine my identity. After all, one cannot expect to have a trouble-free transition from being someone constantly associated with other people, to being entirely one's own person. From that standpoint, I think I qualify to address at least some of the empty-nesters' concerns.
First and foremost, remember that you started off as your own person. Yes, of course, you were someone's child and grand-child, and possibly someone's sibling and nephew or niece. But you were also a brand-new human being. When you were born, nobody dared tell you that this was supposed to be your personality, and this was supposed to be the way you had to be. Everyone was just happy that you have arrived. So, consider going to that state by saying "I am me. Above all. Yes, I am a spouse, yes, I am a parent. But I am also me."
Take a day to go somewhere quiet - a park, a botanical garden or a museum - definitely not home, where you will be compelled to either wander around your kids' empty rooms and mope or go into a yet another cleaning frenzy. Bring a notebook and a pen. Find a spot you like and allow yourself to just relax and watch what's going on around you: leaves falling, pedestrians rushing by, pigeons assaulting people for treats, someone sketching, someone writing, someone arguing or having coffee. Just absorb the fact that this is the first time in your life when you don't have to rush anywhere to pick someone up or drop someone off, or wash someone's soccer uniform, or oversee someone's homework.
As your mind settles, open your notebook and think as far as you can remember: what did you want to do? Start writing it down, no matter how outrageous - from writing the next Great American Novel, to being an astronaut, to owning a lipstick-red evening gown - anything goes. You might be slow starting off, but once you get going, you would be surprised how much stuff is out there that you want to do by and for yourself. It may actually take you several days to get it all out on paper.
Once you have completed your "dream registry", rank them and put them into groups. Avoid using the word "impossible", rather use fun ranking system like, "mildly shocking", "moderately outrageous", "totally insane". Pick a few that fall between "mildly shocking" and "moderately outrageous" and see how many of them you can realize within the next six months. Do not stop yourself by thinking why these things cannot be done, rather make an effort to come up with the ways they can be done.
While you are going about realizing smaller dream, look at the group between "moderately outrageous" and "totally insane". Some of them may turn out a lot more doable upon closer inspection. For instance, if you have a dream to "see the world" (a cliche, I know), do some research on cruises, multi-country tours and mission trips, figure out how much you'd need to save each month to make it happen in a year, and realize that finally not spending all of your expendable cash on your kids is not a bad thing. Some things might be truly out of your reach, but perhaps there are scaled-down versions of them that can be done.
When I was little I wanted to be an astronaut. I applied to join a local young astronaut's club, where they actually did some of the training that real astronauts went through, like going into a swimming pool with an aqualung, or taking a spin on a centrifuge. I was declined due to health issues. However, there are now flights available to private individuals that go into the upper layers of the atmosphere and allow you to experience a few seconds of weightlessness - and it is on my list. I am not doing it next year, but damn if I miss it by the time I am forty-five!
Re-join your gender
Remind yourself that aside from being a parent, a spouse, a neighbor, and a relative, you are still a member of your gender. Having grownup kids does not mean that you are dead or ready for a monastery - not at all! I am not suggesting that you shave your head, get a tattoo and enter an amateur stripping contest. However, there are some fun things that can be done to breath a new life into yourself as a man or a woman.
I addressed some of this for women in an earlier post You are not too old, it's not too late, and you do deserve it, but similar things apply to men as well. A dad of new college kid can and should take a long hard look at his appearance and realize that it may have been in suspended animation for the last twenty years. It is not a crime for an older man to improve how he looks by investing into better clothes, shoes and haircut (not to mention a much-needed dinner date with his wife somewhere other than the local family diner "we have always gone to on Fridays").
Re-take your space
What is the first thing that happens right after a baby is born? The house fills to the brim with all things baby: bottles, diapers, pacifiers, blankets, diapers, tiny clothes and shoes, toys and more diapers. And somehow this doesn't seem to change for as long as your kids are in the house, except the things associated with them appear a little different from one age group to the next. Well, now that they have moved out, it is your turn!
This doesn't mean that your children are no longer welcome at your house. However, you must resist the temptation to turn their old bedrooms into shrines dedicated to them. Ask your kids to tell you honestly, would they really like their rooms to be "just as they left it" when they come home to visit. Figure out what they would like to keep and how (it's their stuff - so they need to give it some thought), and turn their rooms into something else: guest rooms, game rooms or maybe just that home office that you have always wanted but never had any space for.
When I moved to the States my parents redecorated their entire apartment - twice. There is still a place for me to stay and be comfortable when I visit, but the place is theirs. I am a grownup now, I have my own place, so they treat the situation as such.
People and places
Where do you spend most of your time? If you had to outline your daily route on a map, would you wear a groove in it? Home, work, church, home, work, church, home, work, church... Is it something like that? Well, perhaps you need to give yourself a geography lesson. Don't go home after work - go have a coffee and a sandwich somewhere. If you are active in your church, consider handing off some of your projects and spending your free time elsewhere. Take yourself to the movies, or to the theater or to a museum. Yes, some people will probably be scandalized by this, but you know what? You are not on a contract, and this is your own damn life. You can be anywhere you want anytime you want.
Speaking of people... In another post Are you a "friend that needs losing" I talked about some characteristics that make someone an undesirable friend due to being negative, pessimistic and selfish. Look at people around you. How do they support you as you struggle with your new state of being your own person? Do they cheer you on as you check the items off your dream registry? Or do they tell you why things can be done or why they are dangerous, and then try to involve you in their own causes and give you more stuff to do?
While dissolving some old friendships may be a very tough exercise (ask me how I know), perhaps it is time to shift and expand your circle. Keep people in your life and bring new ones in not based on age, gender, social standing or geographic proximity. Rather, examine how you connect with them and why: was it common fondness for fine arts that brought you together, a love for a particular species of peonies, a penchant for Shakespearean quotes or adorable corgi photos? Whatever the reason, strive to keep relationships that are positive and give you opportunity to express yourself honestly.
Yes, they still need you...
Your children, that is... Speaking from the standpoint of a child, who moved not just to another state but across the Atlantic Ocean to pursue what she believed in, I can guarantee you - no matter how mature or self-sufficient, we all have times when we just want mommy and daddy. In my case, it continues to be a challenge, because my dad and step-mom still live in Ukraine. I am sure it is a challenge for them as well, because sometimes they just want their little girl. We all had to come to grips with the fact that they cannot always catch me when I fall - sometimes I have to land on my butt and say "ouch" and get up on my own, otherwise I would never grow up.
Do not cancel a trip or an event you want to go to just because your kid has finals coming up, and might flunk something, and might need to cry on your shoulder. Children need to start coping on their own at some point - if they can't face a bad grade, what are they going to do the first time they are turned down for a job? Wish them luck and go do what you want to do. After all, how many times you had to forgo something because they had a game, or a play, or a cold? It's your time now, and they will just have to handle it.