“What I wish I’d known about becoming an empty nester”
When Nicki Bannerman’s son started packing for university last September, she felt overwhelmed by the sudden change that was hurtling towards her family.
“As his excitement grew, so did my feeling of dread. There was some joy in the prospect of an end to relentless washing, cooking, errands and supermarket demands – but it still felt so bittersweet,” says the single mother of two. “The thought of cooking for one seemed tragic and rather gloomy – albeit much cheaper. The idea of no one to hug or natter to felt rather sad and gave me a hollow, heavy feeling.”
Nicki is far from alone. While millions of teenagers prepare to leave the family home this September, millions of parents are bracing themselves to see if their newly empty nest will leave them feeling energised or depressed. And it really can go either way. While some parents relish their newly returned freedom, a 2021 survey found that 98% of parents said they felt “extreme grief” after their child had gone to university, with 17% experiencing physical symptoms such as panic attacks, sleeplessness, or a racing heart.
Psychotherapist and author Julia Samuel, host of the podcast Therapy Works, has worked with many people who’ve found the transition from busy family home to empty nest difficult. But first, she has something to say about the phrase itself.
“I think the phrase ‘empty nest syndrome’ is diminishing because this really is a living loss,” she says. “It’s a huge change. However, family life is all about adapting to change. And the families that can adapt and grow through change tend to do better. But there is no doubt that it can be complex – you want your children to spread their wings but you’re also grieving how things were.”
“The prospect of my son leaving made me think about my purpose and my identity,” says Nicki, a broadcaster and writer, who hosts the Influential Women podcast. “After two decades spent preparing my two children to leave the nest, I hadn’t prepared myself. And as a single mother, it felt like even more of a big deal.”
Before he’d even left for uni, Nicki recalls Googling “how to cope with an empty nest” and being told that she should expect an adjustment period of grief to last around two to three months. Her daughter had already left for uni but it was a bigger deal the second time around.
“It felt like such a long time to feel blue. I felt redundant – I couldn’t see how I was going to get through the first term. But then, it was as if my survival instinct kicked in and said, ‘You need a plan.’ I thought long and hard about what else (besides my kids) had once made me happy and how I’d got through other big changes in my life. I knew that travelling to new places and experiencing other cultures, food and art always made my spirits soar. Perhaps it was the perfect time to hit the road again.”
So Nicki started researching potential language courses and when she came across one in Florence, she decided to pounce – but first she had to overcome her nerves.
Nicki explains: “I’d once been an independent, well-travelled and confident career woman – so why was I so out of my comfort zone? Had having children changed me so completely, or was it that I couldn’t remember how to be carefree?’”
But as she began planning her travels, pangs of excitement and freedom started to bubble up: “I’d never left my kids for more than a few days, but now the prospect of it felt liberating. They had their own lives and adventures, and it was time for me to find mine.”
Nicki left three days after dropping off her son at uni. Over the next seven weeks, she visited 23 incredible towns and cities across Croatia and Italy, and rediscovered her passion for new people and places.
“It somehow made my loss lighter,” she says. “When I got back, armed with adventure stories and goodies from fun places, my children were more excited to see me than they would have been had I stayed at home. They’d survived – and so had I – and we are all the stronger and better for it.
“Looking back, I can now see that change can be good for you, however much you’re dreading it. And finding your own joy is truly liberating and exciting. It doesn’t have to be travel – it could be a new hobby, interest or friend. And when times get hard, I recommend the sound of radio, a hot water bottle, and good food and exercise.”
Samuel says Nicki is a prime example of someone who used the “fertile void” of departed children in a positive way.
“An empty nest gives you opportunities to be a different version of yourself, to discover things about yourself and to enjoy freedom away from the task of day-to-day parenting,” she says. If you’re struggling at the thought of daily life without your grown-up children, here are Samuel’s strategies:
“Parents who work tend to do better, as they have another identity they can fall back on,” says Samuel. So, if you know there’s going to be a gaping void in your life where your children used to be, start preparing. “Start to explore your interests; things you could train in. Talk to friends and see what’s available – it’s good to get ahead. Work – whether paid or voluntary – gives us structure and purpose. You’re not thinking about the things you care most about, and a break from yourself can be very helpful.”
“Acknowledge that you’re feeling lots of emotions at the same time – ‘I feel sad/scared/worried about my child’ – and let them flow through you. Don’t resist them or try to bat them away. Emotions are transmitters of information – in this case, telling you that you are going through a big change. Journalling [writing down how you feel] can help you identify them.”
“This can be a really squeezed time for people – you might also be coping with menopause or caring for elderly parents. Be aware of your inner voice – what you say to yourself will shape your mindset and your outcome. If you’re saying, ‘I don’t know who I am… I’m completely lost… I feel desperate’ then that will shape how you feel,” says Samuel.
“This can be an opportunity for you to finally do the thing you’ve been wanting to do,” says Samuel. “Often, we fear doing new things or don’t take an opportunity because we’re frightened of not being competent. But let yourself be a beginner again. Make use of the time and the freedom that has been returned to you.”
Once they’ve left, many parents are tempted to keep tabs on their children using technology, but Samuel advises caution. “Tracking your child’s whereabouts is a direct route to madness,” she says. Likewise, laying your sadness at your child’s door is likely to make them feel guilty and worry. Instead, try and be open – communicate how you’re feeling, without being melodramatic. This is a good way of encouraging them to do the same.
“Children learn from observing the adults around them. So, it’s fine to show that you’re feeling upset and distressed – but then you need to find a way to support yourself and move through it. This shows them that it’s possible to move through difficult times.”
“It could be meeting up with friends, scheduling more fun things or even getting therapy – just six sessions might help. Sometimes, new losses can bring back old losses that you haven’t yet dealt with. This is a time to lean on friends – listen to their experiences and open up about your own. This is how we form deep bonds – not by pretending everything’s OK, by really being honest with each other. On a basic level, exercise always helps – even more so if it’s out in nature.”
Written by Fiona Cowood
Fiona Cowood has 20 years’ experience working in senior editorial roles at leading national titles including Grazia, Stylist and Cosmopolitan. She has interviewed a diverse range of remarkable people – from victims of sex trafficking in Nepal through to former Foreign Secretaries and national treasures like Tom Jones.