Help! I Don’t Know How to Handle Being an Empty-Nester

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

Well, the day has finally come. My youngest child is now all grown up and has moved away, leaving me with an empty nest for the first time in more than 30 years. I was a single parent for about half of that time, and while I knew I would be lonely once the kids were out of the house, I had no idea just how lonely and directionless I would be.

I am retired, so I find myself sleeping in until noon (or later) most of the time. Sometimes the sun is down by the time I get up. I don’t bother to cook for myself most days, instead eating frozen meals or going out to grab fast food. Sometimes I don’t even change my clothes for two or three days. I spend most of my day watching TV, browsing the internet, doing house chores/yard work, and napping. I call my kids a lot but they almost never answer and sometimes don’t call back. They have their busy lives, I’m sure.

Some people might not think my life is so bad, and I guess in some ways it’s nice not having to take care of anyone anymore and do whatever I want. But I just don’t find myself wanting to do much of anything. I feel like I lack purpose.

I know I’m not the only empty-nester out there who has found themselves in this position, lonely and lacking purpose. Do you ever get people in therapy who are dealing with this? If so, what do you say to them? Thank you for listening. —Home Alone

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Dear Home Alone,

I’m glad you’ve reached out to ask these questions about your struggles finding your way after your children left home. While you had of course anticipated being an empty-nester for years, that anticipation had been characterized by dread. Now that the time is here, you seem to have made few adaptations in your life to reflect these changes. It sounds like you expected it to be a miserable transition, and your reality so far seems to be meeting that expectation for you. But I am also hearing you want to change this and you are ready to make some changes.

Fundamentally, the first step in making changes is recognizing what needs to change. Therapy or counseling services can certainly assist with this. Sometimes what we need to modify is our thinking about a situation. Is there something about how you are viewing yourself as you’ve transitioned into being home alone that is causing this distress? If I were to meet with you, we would further explore what it means to you to be alone, as well as set and work toward specific goals meaningful to you. The hope is this would result in increasing your comfort in and acceptance of this change.

One area I would explore with you is your self-identity. Aside from a mother, caregiver, and provider, how else do you see yourself? How else have you seen yourself in the past? How has this changed, and how do you see yourself right now? Exploring how you see yourself may lead to a modification in self-concept or recognition of how your current thinking is related to the lack of direction you are experiencing.

It sounds like the emotional way you’ve been adjusting is by withdrawing. The challenge, which I believe you are up for, is recognizing your emotions and what you can do to feel more comfortable.

Another area I would explore with you is how you are spending your time. It seems you are doing things that are consistent with your self-image as a caretaker (e.g., tending to the house, checking in on your kids). The disconnect is your day-to-day responsibilities have changed. Thus, the way you’re living your life is incongruous with your life responsibilities. To answer your question, you are not alone in going through this transition. In fact, what you’re going through is so common it has a name: empty nest syndrome. Your circumstances have changed, and the challenge is going to be to embrace these changes.

Finally, I would want to explore how you are dealing with your feelings. The reality of being home alone is being met with a host of negative emotional states (e.g., loneliness, lack of purpose, and what I can only presume is despair). It sounds like the emotional way you’ve been adjusting is by withdrawing. The challenge, which I believe you are up for, is recognizing your emotions and what you can do to feel more comfortable.

Here are some practical suggestions of things you can do:

  1. Consider what has worked in the past. How did you handle the transition to becoming a single parent or the transition into retirement? What were these transitions like for you and what challenges did they pose in terms of your identity? Think back to the strategies that ended up working for you when you became a single parent. No doubt there was a lot you had no choice but to learn how to cope with. Would any of these strategies be worth trying now?
  2. Continue being a caregiver. It seems a large part of your self-identity is as one who provides care. Fortunately, there are many opportunities to continue that role in other ways in your life that you may find rewarding, fulfilling, and which may help lift your mood. For example, you could volunteer in programs for children, regularly visit residents at a nursing home who may not often receive visitors, or assist at an animal rescue center. There are many ways in which you can give of yourself.
  3. Nurture a passion. Another thing to add to your life is something that, reflecting back to your identity as a busy parent transitioning to a single parent working and raising children, got left behind. Do you recall what you used to love to do or perhaps wished you would have had the time to do? What were you longing to do? If you could have taken time for yourself, what would you have done? Would you still be interested in this now? Is there something you are now curious about? You have ample time to pursue a hobby or passion.
  4. Get out there. Being active and social can directly counter the loneliness you are experiencing. It may seem overwhelming to know where to start, but you can start small. Reach out to an old friend or coworker, perhaps, and schedule a visit. Schedule something in the morning to give yourself a reason to get out of bed before noon. See if there are activities or groups you can join at a community center, library, or other venue. Volunteering is a great way to begin to get out there.
  5. Make an appointment for therapy. Finally, as mentioned earlier, therapy can help you get a better handle on your distress and set you on a better course for your life.

Good luck!

Sincerely,

Marni Amsellem, PhD

Marni Amsellem
Marni Amsellem, PhD, is a licensed psychologist. She maintains a part-time private practice in New York and Connecticut specializing in clinical health psychology, coping with illness, and adjustment to life transitions. Additionally, she is an interventionist and research consultant with hospitals, organizations, and corporations, both locally and nationally, involved with research investigating the role of behavior, environment, and individual differences in multiple aspects of health and decision-making.
  • 5 comments
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  • annette

    annette

    April 7th, 2017 at 9:57 AM

    I am not quite there yet as I still have two teens at home but I feel them pulling further and further away from me every day it seems. They both drive so don’t need me for that anymore. I am lost when it comes to helping with most of the homework lol so really it feels at times like they just need me to cook and clean. I know that I am making light of it but for so many years I have worn this role of MOM that when they don’t need you quite as much anymore you start to lose a sense of who you are and if anyone will need you again. My husband is ready for them to graduate and go to college and be on their own for a while but I can’t stand the thought of losing my babies. I know that once they move out they probably won’t be coming back home so there already feels like there is an emptiness there that I can’t replace.

  • Dorothy

    Dorothy

    April 10th, 2017 at 11:14 AM

    At first it was a very hard transition for me to make to go from always being needed to then being needed by no one. Of course my husband and our dogs need me, but it isn’t the same as the way it is when a young child needs you to help them. Now the young children aren’t quite so young anymore, and they are grown and independent which is what I wanted for them but you don’t know until it happens just how much of a void this can leave you with.

  • reg

    reg

    April 12th, 2017 at 6:48 AM

    I know that you probably don’t hear from men as much on this topic but in my house I am the one who feels all alone since the boys moved out. They were my buddies, we always hung out together on the weekends and went fishing and stuff and now they are both at college and I get lonely for them. We stay in touch of course but they have always been there for me to pal around with and now, things are different.

    I have gone a few times by myself but I think that has made me even more sad to go without them.

  • Terrie

    Terrie

    April 29th, 2017 at 10:36 AM

    Please
    I have reclaimed parts of my house that I had lost for years and years
    be happy, they will make it back home again
    But enjoy this little bit of time while you have it.

  • Joanne

    Joanne

    May 25th, 2017 at 10:28 PM

    what you havent addressed is the hurt feelings when the children don’t contact us or reach out to us. That is a hurdle we could use some suggestions. It’s a hurt that we need to acknowledge is some way in order to over come our loneliness. Can you address that in some way with some suggestions?

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