Family Finding Fullness in an Empty Nest

by Stacy Suaya | October 15, 2018

Elizabeth Winkler is all for changing the label "empty nest." What would it feel like to call it something else, like "the freedom chapter," or "the fewer dishes years"?

After all, many parents eventually do find solace in the grief of children leaving home. Traveling, taking up new hobbies and rediscovering their spouses are just a few ways they’re learning to thrive.

However, Winkler, a family and marriage therapist in Beverly Hills, CA, does not advocate sugarcoating the experience of children leaving home, saying that it’s an extreme life change she likens to divorce.

Kim Raduege, a 44-year-old stay-at-home military mother of two, understands that feeling of grief. When her first son, Zach, left for college in 2014, she was absolutely devastated. “I was so sick to my stomach and there was extreme physical heartache that could not be relieved,” she says.

Raduege is far from alone in her experience, and Winkler encourages patients not to resist the pain, or they’ll stay stuck. “Just know that you’ll create something new,” Winkler says.

Big shifts after life with kids

Raduege is currently preparing for two big life shifts: she and her husband are moving to Langley Military Air Force Base in Virginia, and her son Mike, 22, is leaving home to live abroad with his new wife. As a military spouse, she’s accustomed to moving, but doesn’t feel fully prepared for her last son to leave the house.

“I fear that I haven’t properly prepared my boys for life’s challenges. I worry that I won’t physically be there when they really need me,” Raduege says. No matter her sons’ ages, she still worries about them as though they were little boys.

Raduege also admits it’s frightening to wonder what marriage will look like without the kids. But she hopes that the new chapter will allow her and her husband to focus on each other, and have a new appreciation not only for who they have become, but also what they have accomplished together as a couple and a family.

father and son on couch packing boxes

Winkler assures that Raduege’s fears are normal, and can be slightly alleviated with self-acceptance and strategy. First, simply close your eyes and pause to be with the pain. Ask: “What am I noticing?” Then settle. Know that you’re living in the question mark and that you’re open to endless possibilities.

Try to replace rigid thoughts such as “I can’t do this,” or “This is going to be terrible,” with “Maybe, maybe not.” This makes you feel more open to all options.

There are some things that Raduege is looking forward to, though, and top on her list is an exciting one: her first girls’ trip ever, for a concert in Dallas. It’s the start of a long-term goal to rekindle her love of music. She also plans to take guitar lessons, start writing a book, travel and do humanitarian work. “After all the sadness, I can feel my sense of adventure and independence returning,” she says.

Winkler says, “It is common for many to be fearful during this monumental shift. Be willing to step into that unknown space and greet your fear with a smile, knowing that your children are also doing this very same thing as they venture into a new phase of their life.” She adds, “The whole family is in this together. What a beautiful way to come together even if it is while you are apart.”

The whole family is in this together. What a beautiful way to come together even if it is while you are apart.
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Relationship changes ahead

Jennifer Oliver of Charlottesville, VA, will definitely not miss the 20 palettes of eyeshadow strewn across the bathroom sink from her youngest daughter, Emily, 17, but she will miss watching Emily “making herself beauteous.” Jennifer is married with two children, and works as a director in human resources at a university. Emily will attend college this fall, and her brother Josh, 20, is now a junior at another school.

“I’m not excited to have my kids gone,” Jennifer says. To mitigate the loss, she has set a few plans in motion. She and her husband, Carey, are planning renovations to their house, and they’re negotiating the idea of renting an RV and driving cross-country. Carey doesn’t like to camp — specifically, sleep on the ground — so it’s a compromise.

Carey also has reservations about Emily leaving home: she is young for her grade, so he worries about how she will adjust to college, how independent she will become and how fast that will happen.

However, even with these concerns on his mind, Carey also began cultivating new hobbies a few years ago to keep busy in advance of the kids leaving for college. He works at a local winery during summers, has picked up some night classes at a local community college and joined a local symphonic band that practices once a week.

“As for our marriage,” Carey adds, “I am very hopeful that we will enter somewhat of a renaissance. I plan on showing more affection towards my wife since I won’t have to worry about the kids butting in. I also think the getaways we are planning will give us a chance to reconnect and enjoy each other’s company more.”

To prepare for this phase with your spouse, Winkler advises that you meet with someone (like a therapist, an empathic friend, or your partner) to look at what areas within yourselves and the relationship you want to nurture and grow, and what areas you want to release.

Staying in touch as a family

The frequency in which you connect with your children may or may not change, once they’ve moved out. But you do have control over how you connect with them. Winkler suggests sending your child some of their favorite treats with handwritten letters, and setting up scheduled times for video calls, or connect via text, voice or video messages.

“Perhaps this is every other day or every weekend, but understand that every child is different, and finding the best way to support the individual is the most important,” Winkler says. When you’re talking, she advises asking questions that can inspire deeper dialogues, such as:

  • How can I support you?

  • What are you learning about yourself?

  • What’s a current challenge?

  • What’s surprised you as being easy?

  • What lemons are you experiencing and how can we make lemonade with them?

    Jennifer Oliver knows that she’ll really miss spontaneously asking her kids, “Hey, do you guys want to go to the movies?” But with each of them under three hours away, she knows she can visit on holidays or long weekends.

    “I want to organically just let it happen,” she says of the transition, not wanting to create expectations that they’ll fail to keep. She knows she’ll have to exercise self-control if they don’t respond to her texts right away, but feels that technology is amazing and hopes to touch base with her daughter at least once every weekend.

    “I have a good outlook,” Oliver says about the new dynamic she is creating with both her husband and herself. Winkler agrees that newness is key. “People are always saying, I want to go back to the way we were,” says Winkler. “That’s not possible. Allow your identity to shift and change,” she says. “It’s a total awakening and rebirthing process.”

    Allow your identity to shift and change. It’s a total awakening and rebirthing process.
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    How will this “awakening process” unfold? In a few months, Life and Money by Citi will reconnect with Jennifer Oliver and Kim Raduege and their families for part two in this series, to find out what they’re up to, and how life has changed.

    Stacy Suaya

    is grateful that her two young boys still have many years at home. The Los Angeles-based writer’s work has appeared in The New York Times Styles, The New York Times T Magazine, Los Angeles Times, C Magazine and Robb Report.