It was a long drive and Eve cried most of the way home, because the big day hadn’t gone the way she had hoped, not that big days ever did.
Tom Perrotta in “Mrs. Fletcher: A Novel”
If my writing is not clear enough, I am self-diagnosed with empty nest syndrome. A very real phenomenon but one that is not often shared in polite company. Oh, you can read articles online, but who can share this with? Think about it.
“I am really sad today, I really miss my last child who is off at Duke University”. Who do I share this with? My next store neighbor whose daughters did not go to college and one is back home, unmarried, with a child in tow? Most of the family’s I know, real families, have had some tragedy with at least one of their kids, whether drugs, joblessness, crushing mental health issues that caused them to drop out of school, or a million other failure to launch scenario’s. It really does not come off well to look for sympathy among those whose empathy would only be natural envy. Also when you look at my symptoms, it feels shameful to indulge these feelings of happiness and sadness. Like I am asking for one too many pieces of pie. There is the voice that says, “Your kids are doing great! Just be happy and forget this sadness nonsense”. It’s the shame part of an addiction. But the feelings of shame serve only to drive the symptoms underground where they breed even stronger in the dark basements of our minds.
Since the idea of sharing my neurotic symptoms of being both happy and sad at the same time was not appealing, I took the animal out the basement for a walk…and did what I am in the unique position as a psychologist to do: I did some research. I work at a small college that allows me to set my own research agenda. My wife and I homeschooled our kids when they were younger. During that time I worked with some of my college students to research some topics related to homeschooling. Happily that led to the publication of our findings. When our last child of four went off to college, I recruited several unsuspecting students to help me with this new topic. I wanted to know what empty nest syndrome is and (selfishly) who gets it.
I was curious to know if it would make a difference if your child went to public school or private school or was homeschooled. Might the homeschool parents be the most lost when their kids leave home? Would the private school parents be happy to have their kids move up the next rung in the ladder of life? One of my students had an even better idea. She suggested that empty nest syndrome might relate to the type of parenting style you exhibited. Back in the 1960’s a researcher, Diana Baumrind, identified three basic parenting styles. Those three styles were authoritarian, authoritative and permissive. Authoritarian parents tend to be those who emphasize rules and expect their kids to follow them. They feel they need to tell their kids what to do as they are the authority and know best. There is not a lot of give and take in their parenting. Authoritative parents feel there are rules and have high expectations for their kids, but they tend to approach parenting more democratically. They discuss the rules and consequences with their kids. Permissive parents tend to take a more natural growth approach to parenting. They tend to feel that their kids will “figure it out” by experiencing life. They tend to let their children lead regarding what they can or cannot do. They are more like friends to their kids and do not like policing them. So my student was curious which of these parenting styles would be most impacted by the empty nest. Would the authoritarian parents be unburdened by not having to tell their kids what to do anymore? Would the permissive parents miss not having their friend/child around? And just where would the middle of the road parents land?
Of course these were not the only variables of interest. Would gender matter? It was originally assumed that empty nest syndrome is something experienced by women fulfilling a more traditional role as the primary parent, but things are by no way traditional anymore. Would level of involvement during school years matter? What does become of all those soccer moms and softball dads who invest so much in their kid’s sports? Would marital status matter? Would single moms and dads take the transition out of the home all the harder or would they appreciate the freedom? Would our religious commitment make a difference or might the empty nest experience lead to exploring spirituality?
These are questions we wanted to explore – and we are happy to report that we have some very tentative answers to these questions which we will be sharing on this website.
WHAT’S YOUR STORY? What kind of parent were you? What kind of school did your child attend? How active were you in your child’s activities. How hard has it been or are you mostly happy?