Reviewed May 2017
Today’s topic is the empty-nest syndrome: what to do when the kids move away. I know how bad this one feels, and I remember one of my patients talking about how she used to stop at stoplights right around the time when her last child was graduating from high school and just start to weep.
I, myself, had chest pain when my youngest daughter was about to leave home, and I remember that she left an instant message on the computer for her friends, as each one went off to college. Her message said, well, I guess this is it, goodbye. And the day she left, that instant message was plastered right on the main computer in the house, and I was thinking, oh, how am I going to do this?
And so the first thing to do is to feel that this is a loss. Anytime you do anything where you have poured a lot of your creative energy into a project, into a novel, into a business, into a child, when that process is over, when the novel is complete, when the business is on its legs, whatever it is, you go through exactly the same thing you went through when you gave birth, which is a kind of a postpartum letdown. So the only way out is through. Allow yourself to feel that fully. Take long walks, sleep as much as you can, nourish yourself, make sure you’re taking a good multivitamin, keep your blood sugar stable, and simply feel it. You know the old saw, you have to feel it to heal it.
And then understand something, usually when we women are at the age where our child has, our last child has left home, we’re at the beginning of giving birth to ourselves, and this is why so many women actually dream of having babies at midlife. They have all these dreams of going through labor. I certainly did. It was fun, too, as an OB/GYN, because when I have a dream that I’m in labor, I know everything that’s going on, plus there’s no pain whatsoever.
So this is the time when you, yourself, get to go back in your mind, to what you loved when you were 11, 12. At the feisty, mouthy girl that you were at 11 or 12, who liked to ride horses, liked to ride bikes, liked to hike, liked to swim, liked to dance, liked to sing, and that will hold a clue as to what it is you are supposed to be doing. And so you need to start somewhere. The most important thing is to get a life.
I remember saying as a mantra, I don’t have a life anymore. Can you imagine? I mean, I had a couple of New York Times bestselling books, and I had a great career, but I really felt as though the bottom of my life had fallen out. I don’t have a life.
What I didn’t have was a satisfying social life. I knew how to work, and I knew how to deal with my kids, but I didn’t know how to have fun, and I didn’t know how to reinvent myself. So you start where you are, and you keep fit, and you take classes, and you begin to do the things you’ve always wanted to do.
The health—your health—the health of your entire family is dependent upon how you negotiate this life stage. Because if you fail to do it, you will become the same problem for your kids that perhaps your mother has become for you. This is the turnaround time. So your job is to start thinking of all the things that you’d really like to be doing. If anything at all were possible, begin to focus on yourself, for a change, and you will find that that will seed your entire family with more juice and more joy than anything you could possibly imagine. That’s what you do with the empty-nest syndrome.