by Susan Piperato
I’ve been a full-time single parent for 13 years, so I’ve never take time away from my two beloved sons for granted. When I dropped off my younger son, 17, at Newark Airport to visit his older brother in Chicago last summer, I drove home happy to have two weeks alone. But when I got back, something seemed amiss. Maybe it was the lone sneaker standing in the entryway, or the Frisbee on the antique chest in the living room. Whatever the reason, I suddenly felt as empty as my house.
Instead of watching a movie as planned, I spent the evening sitting on the couch, pondering how my life will change next year when my younger son leaves for college. I’d been secretly dreading this since his older brother, now 20, left two years ago; now I realized there was only one year left until my nest fully emptied–and when it did, unless I made changes, my life could remain as stagnant as it suddenly looked from the couch. So I did what I do in any crisis: lots of research.
The empty nest is “part of the natural progression of growth and development in children and families,” says Healthy Workplaces, LLC founder Mallary Tytel, but can be especially trying for single parents. This was certainly borne out by two single moms I know, whose nests emptied the year my older son left home. Beth, a lawyer and widow, went on such a shopping spree when her son moved down South that she has put their house up for sale to cover her debts. And Pamela, a dance instructor who divorced while her daughter was in her teens, visited her daughter’s college in Manhattan so often, offering lunch, pedicures, or gallery trips, that finally her daughter tearfully refused her. “The poor kid,” Pamela told me, “I thought if we just got together for an hour or so, I wouldn’t get in her way. What was I thinking?”
Kids leaving home can be as mind-blowing as their arrival, says Tina B. Tessina, Southern California psychotherapist and blogger “Dr. Romance”–“the reverse of ‘baby shock’–the reaction that happens when a baby changes your life overnight.”
Recognizing that when your kids are gone, you’re on your own is sound thinking, says Ed Moran, licensed clinical social worker at Family Centers in Fairfield County, Connecticut. “I don’t think single parents are more susceptible to experiencing it, but I think perhaps the way it can be experienced is different for single parents,” he says. “Although fathers can go through it, it’s traditionally the mother we associate with the empty nest–and a woman who’s been a mother and a wife has somebody right there to lean on and help them through it. But for single parents, it can be extremely devastating. “
Mt. Kisco family therapist Sharon Giles O’Neill believes single parents “fall at two ends of a normal bell curve/continuum.” Some have developed such close relationships with their kids that they consider them best friends and confidantes, she says, while others, “due to job/career needs, did not spend a lot of one-on-one time with their child–in these kinds of cases, the parent may feel more relief from guilt, but less attachment emotions.”
So, what’s a single parent to do? Start preparing a year ahead, says Tytel. Teach your child to live independently–including how to do laundry, cook, and balance a checkbook. Senior year is a time of “tug of war between independence and interdependence,” she warns, and for “looking forward and being open to the unknown” and “open communication.” Talking about everything from “fears, feelings of being alone,” to “what the parent will do with the extra time and space” will help the transition.
While some experts advise embarking on extreme makeovers immediately upon a child’s departure–including redecorating, meeting new people, dating, volunteering, and changing careers–Giles O’Neill cautions against taking on too much too fast. “Give thought to what hobbies, etc., you might suddenly have time for and possibly enter into, maybe one, in a small way to have a little experience before you’re alone,” she says. After all, when the nest empties, parents need to practice spreading wings before they fly–just like their children.
Susan Piperato is a freelance writer and editor based in the Mid-Hudson Valley. She is currently working on a children’s book.