Empty Nesting: The bright side of being home alone

By on July 1, 2011

By Penelope Lemov –

I used to joke that senior year in high school was designed to make parents willing to part with their kids. It was my way of taking the edge off the anticipation of the blues I would have once the nest was empty. When the youngest of my children left for college, I did feel down. So did my husband. But not for that long.

Like most of people, we found the up side of our new situation–time to do things we always wanted to try, and when we wanted to try them. We could grab the watercolor paints and head for a hill or break out the wine and cheese and call it dinner.

Though the “empty nest syndrome” is supposed to be one of the major adjustments of life–we miss the little critters and their soccer games, swim meets and theatrical performances–but researchers now say that the empty nest syndrome is a fiction. Not that our children–the birds finally out of the nest–don’t think we’re suffering from it.

Karen Fingerman, a psychologist at Purdue University who teaches classes on family issues, asks incoming freshmen how they think their parents are doing now that they, the children, are in college. Every year, the students answer almost uniformly: Our parents must be “devastated” by our absence.

But in fact, Fingerman’s research finds that we, the parents, are thriving. And with good reason: All that teenage tension has left the building. While we may experience wistfulness for the excitement they brought into the house–their music bouncing off the walls, the buzz of their endless telephone chitchat–scientists are finding that even among women who devote all their time to raising kids, there is no empty nest syndrome. Instead, there is a feeling of satisfaction at a job well done: The kids are independent!

Fingerman finds another source of the positive vibe: As we get older, she says, “We get better at emotional regulation.” Moreover, a lot of the volatility that had been in our lives when we were younger has diminished–we’re more settled. By the time our children are young adults, most of us know where our careers are heading, where we’re going to live and with whom.

The empty nest gives us time and chance to reach out and bring more activities and relationships into our lives. We may start reconnecting with old friends and relatives we haven’t seen in years. And tracing the family tree–an activity that’s grown a thousand fold in recent years—is now possible, not only by the Internet and its search engines but by the energies and interests unleashed by those of us who no longer having our kids–and their tensions–in the home.

Penelope Lemov is a financial correspondent and editor for a national magazine on state and local government, where she writes monthly newsletters on finance and tax policy. In her other life as Penny Lemov, she is the founder and author of a four-year-old blog, Parenting Grown Children: What Dr. Spock Forgot to Tell Us, from which this article is adapted. Family tales about the interaction between herself, her husband, her grown children and her grandchildren are often featured on that site—much to her grown son’s and daughter’s occasional objections. Penny’s web site is http://www.grownchildren.net/. You can also follow her on twitter as PenPenWrites.

About Penelope Lemov

As Penelope Lemov, I'm a senior editor and financial columnist for a national magazine on state and local government. I write two monthly columns on finance and tax policy, both of which are posted at Governing.com. In my more personal life, I’m known as Penny. I have one husband (of 45 years) and two grown children, both of whom have started families of their own in cities far from the family home and from each other. The grand total is four grandchildren, one grandpup and a lot of travel to visit them. Their lives and the way our lives intersect with them are the spark behind my blog, Parenting Grown Children: What Dr. Spock Forgot to Tell Us. http://www.grownchildren.net/grownup_children_project/

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Empty Nesting: The bright side of being home alone