How to cope with an empty nest

NEIL ROSENTHAL
Last updated 05:00 03/10/2012
Empty nesters
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ALONE AGAIN: Being an empty-nester brings up lots of complicated feelings.

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Here's how it feels: your last child, the baby, has gone off to university, married or otherwise left home, and you are struggling with conflicting emotions. On one hand, you've waited for this day a long time. You've fantasised about what you would do when you had more time on your hands.

On the other hand, no matter how much you were looking forward to it, you find yourself missing your kids more than you thought you would. Some people, especially mums, feel a loss of purpose and may feel depressed - particularly if you feel your child doesn't need you any more. You may feel you have not adequately prepared your child for the real world, or that your child is too young, immature or ill-prepared to be on his or her own.

In the meantime, very few of your friends or family members are sympathetic, because they feel your kids springing from the nest is normal and that you just need to get a life and stop moaning about the small things.

Things are magnified if you are single and, overnight, you are left completely alone. Or if you were a fulltime parent, and now you are unemployed. Or if you're in a distant, unstable or unfulfilling relationship, and now you have nothing to distract you from a spouse or partner you are not feeling all that close to. Or, just as bad, you have nothing to hold the two of you together as your marriage has stagnated.

So what does a grown-up do? Here are some suggestions for overcoming the complicated feelings of being an empty-nester.

First, you are still a parent and can still be there for your child. But do so less, so you're a bit more in the background than before. Your child's task is to physically emancipate, and your task is to let him or her do so with a minimum of guilt and a lot of encouragement. Also, prepare your child. Can s/he cook breakfast? Do laundry? Pay bills on time? Make sure you have prepared him or her as well as you can, so you will worry less. Allow yourself to be proud of your child for being a competent young adult - and proud of yourself for being a good parent.

Second, ask yourself: "What else would I like to do that I have postponed or put off?" Now may be the perfect time to challenge yourself to create a different you. Have you always wanted to write a novel, but were too busy with kids and family? How you dreamed about going back to school to qualify for a new career? Or to learn how to play the guitar, or relearn tennis or ice-skating that you gave up years ago? Now would be a great time to develop or expand yourself. So create that wish-list and look at what it would take to pursue one or two (or more) of your goals.

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Third, look carefully at your marriage - or lack of a satisfying relationship. Whatever your circumstances, look at how you could change or improve what you've now got. This would be a perfect time to do so, if your partner is willing. (If your partner is not willing, perhaps this is the right time to look at how you feel about the relationship.) If you're not in a relationship, perhaps now is the right time to find one, so you don't feel so isolated or alone.

Fourth, take good care of yourself. Exercise, lose weight, take a dance class, eat healthier, renew old friendships, expand your social circle, try yoga, get a massage, cut down on bad habits, relearn how to romance, practise the art of seduction, learn to meditate. This is the free time you've been dreaming about. Make sure you're taking full advantage of it.

Fifth, this is a real loss and it requires time for you to grieve. If you plunge into a deeper depression, seek help. Your depression may be about lots of things, and this is the right time to address them.

Sixth, you can stay in contact with your child, but don't hover and don't keep your child dependent on you. The mark of an adult is to be able to function competently on your own. Allow your child that feeling of self-confidence to be a high-functioning independent, young adult. You can still have contact - through phone, email, Skype, texting, care packages and the like. But don't be in touch all the time, or you may send the message that you don't think your child can make it.

Finally, this is your time. Enjoy it, and make good use of it.

What did you do when your kids left home?

- © Fairfax NZ News

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