The ‘Incapable’ Empty Nester

by

Remember the years before having children when we moms were fully formed humans? We had lives, interests, hobbies, and friendships. Then we became moms, and we were bombarded with messages telling us from that point on our identity needed to shift to being just that “mom”.

When we spend so many years of our adult lives being “mom”, what happens when our kids leave the nest? According to research, the transition is actually bittersweet. One study shows that parents experience mixed emotions of both sadness and excitement when their children leave the nest. This nuanced portrayal is not typically shown in the mainstream, though. Instead, gendered messages tell us who we should be as empty nesters, and usually, those messages say we are likely to be incapable empty nesters. If we believe the messages, and most of us do on some level, we believe that we will be completely destroyed when our kids leave home. We won’t be able to cope. We will be just a shell of a human.Image of an empty nest to demonstrate the incompetent empty nester

Perhaps you remember the sitcom Mad About You. Jamie, who attended Yale University, found herself working in public relations for a private agency. She rose through the ranks at Farrer-Gantz Public Relations to become regional vice president and eventually started her own firm. Successful and goal-oriented, Jamie navigated marriage alongside her career, but over time, we watch her slip further and further from herself as she embarks on the journey of motherhood. 

By the time the show reboots, we see this once strong and competent woman is barely able to function. Jamie is now controlling and obsessive over her grown daughter, Mabel, who just started college at NYU. In fact, in a disturbing scene that I guess is supposed to be funny, she destroys Mabel’s bed at home, leaves the remains in the hallway outside their apartment and impales one of Mabel’s stuffed animals with the broken wood. Eventually, she has to sign a contract issued by her daughter that enforces a 48-hour no-contact rule. We didn’t hear much about Jamie’s career or what she had planned for her next chapter. 

Although viewers may have been amused by Jamie, her reactions to facing the empty nest are downright disturbing. This response is presented as a normal part of empty nester syndrome. These messages, cloaked in humor, get into our heads and shape the way we see ourselves. They tell us who to be. We start to compare ourselves with TV characters. Society tells us over and over and over again: we will basically freak out when the kids leave, and we start to believe it. Image of circles with text inside that says 'and so I begin again' to show incompetent empty nester

I am now 57 and a half. I have been around the block a time or two as an empty nester, as a mom, and as a professional with over thirty years of experience working with moms. From what I have seen, Jamie is not the typical mom coping with her child leaving not at all. When I was researching for this blog, I found this powerful piece. It challenges the idea that when we face the empty nest we will be left asking our kids, “If I’m not your mother, do I even exist?” 

I have to say, when I started my chapter as an empty nester, I honestly dreaded it. I was sad. I was worried about my kids. The house seemed so empty. Well, the house was empty. So empty. Did I mention the house was empty?! Not having the kids home was really difficult at times, but that’s not all it was. It’s like Meredith Vieira said,

“We did our job… You’re supposed to give your children roots and wings, and their roots are firmly planted in the ground and they have a sense of themselves and of place and purpose. They have the ability to fly away from home and test their wings. It’s time for us to sort of recapture our lives and enjoy it…” 

I did and do really enjoy this chapter of my life.

Sure, empty-nester moms struggle, and some of us have more difficulty than others. But the many moms I know are strong and competent despite their struggles. Both things can be true. We can be devastated that our kids left and excited about our next steps. We moms are way more than what society tells us about ourselves.

So, for you mommas who are becoming empty nesters this year, don’t let the change consume you. Of course, you will be sad. Of course, it will be challenging. Of course, your heart will break. There will be many inevitable adjustments when your kids leave home. And yet it can be exciting and fun as you start the next chapter. Don’t believe all the messages you see about the empty nester mom and start looking ahead. The next steps can be filled with joy. 

If you are interested in learning more about the college transition (my first webinar is coming up in early July!) and preparing for the empty nest, sign up for my email list to learn about upcoming webinars and groups. Please reach out at any time. I would love to help. 

Contributor Statement: Melanie Garcia (mgarcia02@wesleyan.edu) contributed to the research and writing of this blog. Melanie is an undergraduate student majoring in English and is interested in women’s health and domestic violence advocacy.