Empty nest can be a good thing for parents

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By Brian Goslow

For Elizabeth Souza, 62, of Amherst, that empty nest feeling started when her first child, Noah, began looking at perspective colleges in his junior year of high school in 1993.

“You have a foreshadowing,” said Souza, who researched the empty nest phenomenon for a 2003 dissertation as part of her doctoral degree in sociology requirements while attending the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “You recognize one stage of life is changing and morphing into the next stage, which is more tentative and uncharted.”

Psychology Today defines “Empty Nest Syndrome” as “feelings of depression, sadness and/or grief experienced by parents and caregivers after children come of age and leave their childhood homes.” While the magazine suggests women are more likely than men to be affected, dads can also feel the pangs of children going out on their own.

When the day came to leave Noah at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Penn., Souza was jumping for joy. Not so her husband, Bill Stapleton. “They do this convocation that’s a signal for parents that it’s time to go, it’ll be OK,” she said.

“When we went to say goodbye to Noah, he was nowhere to be found. It was a shock. On our way to his dorm, Bill was putting on his sunglasses — even though it was dark — because he was really emotional about leaving Noah at college.”

Souza and Stapleton’s initial empty nest period came to an unexpected halt when both their children returned home after graduating college. “Noah came home after three or four years in the workforce; Phoebe right after college,” Souza said. After working two years to raise the funds, her daughter enrolled in a nearby grad school, as did her brother. Their parents paid for their lodging elsewhere to cut the cord one final time.

Not all parents have the ability to assist their children to that extent and with today’s challenging economy and job market, more and more adult children are moving back home after earning their college degrees.

“This causes havoc for the parents,” said Dr. Marsha Vannicelli, a Cambridge-based licensed clinical psychologist. “They’re neither free or not free.” Often the returning adult children expect the same services provided when they were younger. “They expect to come home to hot meals waiting for them, their room picked up and laundry done for them.”

They also want to be “totally independent and no longer under the jurisdiction of parental rules with a declaration of ‘I’m an adult.’ ” This can cause agitation in the home. Vannicelli said negotiations are needed with the parents making it clear what’s expected of the adult child.

When she meets with parents facing this dilemma, Vannicelli tells them the key to not letting the situation get out of hand is to not reinforce pre-college entitlement patterns.

When Frank Armstrong and Ellen S. Dunlap of West Boylston brought their daughter, Libbie, to college in Ohio in 2000, they knew that, in some ways, she wasn’t ready for it.

Neither were her parents.

“I was heartbroken,” Dunlap said. “I didn’t see how I would live without her right there. As an only child, she was very close to both of us. Because I was afraid (of her daughter’s perceived unpreparedness for college), I cried most of the way home.”

When they returned from work each day — Armstrong is a lecturer in photography at Clark University; Dunlap is president of the American Antiquarian Society, both in Worcester — “we’d ask each other, ‘Did you hear from Libbie?’ She was, and still is, a big part of our lives,” Armstrong said. Eleven years later, they haven’t stopped asking.

Before Libbie left, Armstrong got a dog in anticipation of be-ing lonely without his daughter around. “That helped me considerably,” he said.

The events of 9/11 upset their daughter; then, after a close aunt died, Armstrong said, “she called and said, ‘I need to come home and rethink things.’ ”

While she said it was hard knowing the difficulties their daughter was having in school, when Libbie returned home, Dunlap was proud they had given her space to make her own mistakes and grow as a person. They gave her the second floor of their home to live independently.

“We needed to give her room to grow up on her own terms; she just needed a little nudging,” Dunlap said. “We told her, ‘You have to get on with life,’” They encouraged her to find a volunteer position to get work experience, which eventually led to a full-time position.

That loving support paid off two-fold: Libbie recently married and is living nearby.

Armstrong and Dunlap benefited from still being fully engaged in their careers when their daughter first left home and being willing to adjust to new circumstances in her life. That’s not always the case for suddenly home alone parents.

Denial of the significance of the change can lead to impulsive and dysfunctional behaviors, said Dr. David M. Reiss, Interim Medical Director at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital in Holyoke.

Weaknesses in the relationship, simmering differences or hostilities will tend to come to the surface through this life-changing event. There may be particular tension if one partner feels freed up while the other goes through a period of a significant sense of loss and grief.

Reiss said newly empty nester parents will contact him to seek help for sadness or grief or a loss of a sense of purpose — but very often, the presenting problem is marital/relationship issues that may include affairs or over-indulging and spending or complaints of depression. They have to be guided to identify and directly address the sense of grief, sadness and loneliness they’re feeling, he said.

Vannicelli suggested that couples finding themselves in this dilemma try to reconnect to what brought them together in the beginning of their relationship and how they felt about each other when they wanted to make a family together. If they find there is not enough left to keep the marriage going, the couple should find an amicable way to end the marriage while keeping the family intact.

Becoming an empty nester came unexpectedly for Lisa Mikulski, a Westbrook, Conn. single mom of two sons. She hadn’t even considered the prospect until her older son, David MacDonald, 22, broke the news he was moving to Philadelphia with his best friend.

At the time, having younger son, Kyler Mikulski, 20, still at home, lessened the loss. Three months later, he suddenly announced he was moving to Boston; later that evening, a friend came over with a truck, helped him load his possessions into it, and off they went.

“That was bad,” Lisa Mikulski said. “I walked back and forth between each boy’s room. The following day, I had a work interview during which I realized I had nobody to go home to. That lasted about 24 hours (after which) I adjusted to that easily and realized I like being on my own.”

In a single-parent family, the children leaving will generally create much more of a change or threat to the parent’s sense of identity, according to Reiss.

“There can be freeing-up of motivation to be more self-focused in a positive — or negative — way. There may be a sense of loss and confusion. Most of the time there will be both,” Reiss said. “Without a partner, there will be less availability for shared commiseration and comforting and there may be more loneliness and a sense of disorientation. On the positive side, if the parent has a strong ability to tolerate independence, there is less chance to be caught up in having to re-structure a marriage/partnership.”

For their part, Mikulski’s two sons don’t feel guilty about their decision. Kyler said he visits his mom at least twice a month and sends her text messages often.

“I’ve spent hours with her (regarding the transition process) listening, talking, yelling, arguing, questioning, listening, lecturing, listening and listening some more,” he said. “I maintain a very special relationship with her. We both know that neither of us would be in the places that we are without the other — in a positive way.”

Asked what advice he would share with other offspring on helping their parents during the empty nest transition period, Kyler Mikulski said, “Do good deeds. Let mom or dad know. It’ll reinforce their sanity more than you’d think.”

On the other hand, his brother, David MacDonald, noted he’s one of those people who isn’t big on regular communication. However, that doesn’t mean he isn’t thinking of his mother — and doesn’t love hearing from her. “Don’t wait for us to call you, we appreciate the occasional check up just as much (as you do),” he said.