An Empty Nest and a Full Heart
By Lottie Nilsen / October, 2011

Raising children can be a consuming job. For years, it's patching skinned knees, soothing hurt feelings, chauffeuring, refereeing, disciplining, guiding, occasionally cajoling, and yet always loving. There are days when you can't wait for the kids to grow up and give you a moment of peace.

But it is an entirely different story when that day actually arrives.

For some parents, the feelings associated with empty nest syndrome appear when children head off to college, the military or just across town to assert their independence. For others, the winds of change blow a bit earlier when, with a freshly minted driver's license in hand, a young adult ventures out on his or her own, no longer needing or wanting a parent to provide access to the outside world.

"I've been preparing myself for twenty years for this day," said Susan Norton of Boynton Beach, just two days after she and her husband Stephen Norton left one sophomore and twin freshmen at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.

"I'm so used to the chaos and having all of their friends over and entertaining. I love being around all the teenagers. Today, I came home and this was a big deal, facing the house. It's overwhelming with the children being gone."

Empty nest syndrome feels like a loss, and while it may not be a tragedy, it is a significant event in the lives of parents, according to Dr. Andrea Corn, a psychologist in Lighthouse Point who works with parents adjusting to this milestone. While some parents cope with the change and move on, others benefit from working with a mental health professional.

"Everyone is going to feel it to some degree," said Dr. Corn. "It's realizing that they are feeling an emptiness, a sense of not having a purpose in their lives, feeling lost and alone. They are missing what is familiar, which is being a caretaker and caregiver for the children. They have to acknowledge that it is a loss, that their children are no longer young and need to be more independent."

This shift came last January for Denise McLauglin of Boca Raton, the mother of an only child who scheduled her work around her son's school, athletics and activities. "I have always been the person with the flexible schedule, who was able to carpool and take him and his friends to baseball when other parents couldn't get away," she said. "Once he started driving, I was no longer needed for all that. It was a real wake-up call, because it felt like my job was being taken away."

For Norton, the change also brings some anxiety, "I ask myself constantly did I provide them all the skills that they really needed before I sent them off into the world. Are they going to be organized, thoughtful, and considerate -- all these great things I hope I showed and taught. Are they going to be able to put them into action without me sitting there?"

Dr. Corn challenges parents who are struggling to think of this transition as a positive change, rather than a loss. "I want to help them start thinking about what they want to do," she said. "This absence of a child doesn't mean its just emptiness. It opens up a space to try new things."

She also recommends that partners really listen to each other and share what they are feeling. "It's very easy to take someone for granted," said Dr. Corn. "It's about taking the time, not making assumptions, learning to acknowledge and not dismiss, ridicule or ignore what the other person is saying because he or she may be feeling the loss very intensely."

McLaughlin has filled her extra time by helping her husband Jim with his business and by volunteering for a few hours a week at Spanish River High School, where her son is a junior. "I may not always get to see him, but I feel like it's a connection," she said.

Norton is easing into her newfound freedom with plenty of text messages and calls from her kids, as well as by trying new things. "I'm a whirlwind and I like to do it all, it just takes the effort to get up and go," she said. "Once I get settled, I know I'll have a great time."

And she's counting down the days until the weekend for parents' visitation.

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