Having now sent off to either marriage or college all of our five children, Julie and I have hit the empty nesters stage. One thing we have learned over the last five years as the size of our at-home family has shrunken is that all the relationships have to be redefined with each change.
In some ways, the idea of an empty nest appeals to me; it does not at all appeal to my partner, who is truly a stellar mom.
So we have talked to some of our empty nest friends, as well as learned from the experts, about how a father can manage the phenomenon that we will experience before too long - being an empty nest dad.
Why Fathers Have Empty Nest Challenges
Mental health professionals have long recognized something they call empty nest syndrome. These are the feelings of sadness, loss, role adjustment, fear and changing relationships that happen when a mother and father send their last child out on their own. Generally, mothers have been the major focus; after all, most mothers spend more time with their children than do fathers and many have very close emotional ties. So the feelings of loss and the need for adjustment is often more pronounced for the mom.
But fathers today also have very close relationships with their children. Today's generation is perhaps more focused than any other in recent times on father-child relationships.
So parting with the last child can also bring some difficulties to dad.
But for many with whom we spoke, the biggest challenge of being an empty-nester had little to do with the separation from the child, and everything to do with a need to redefine the marriage relationship when only husband and wife remain.
Fathers report that, because so much of family life has for twenty years or more revolved around children, they no longer have much in common with their partner. Sometimes marriages have devolved into simply the relationship of a mother and a father; with the children no longer occupying center stage, we have to work through some critical relationship issues.
Tips for Fathers Surviving the Empty Nest Experience
Recognize the reality of change. It is helpful to remember that moving into the empty-nest stage of life is a major change, but it is one that has both positives and negatives. Accepting the reality of this new transition and knowing some of the changes to expect is helpful.
Focus on relationships. Now that the demands of parenting in your immediate family are less, it is good to remember that life is about relationships. Focus on rebuilding and strengthening your marriage. Spend time with your partner and other friends. You can't just decrease the time you spend on your relationship with your son or daughter; you have to add time to other important relationships.
Take care of yourself. If you are like me, you have put a lot of things on hold for yourself as you have cared for your family as the dad and husband.
With some additional time, it's smart to create a little more time for yourself. Get your exercise regimen back; maybe play a little more golf or travel a little more. It's a great time for refreshing, and you deserve it.
Make a dream list, together. Sit down with your partner and make a list of things you have dreamed about doing during the active parenting years and prioritize. Maybe it's time for the trip to Hawaii or the new fly rod.
Keep connected to the kids. You don't stop being a dad when the kids are no longer at home; the roles just change. Email the kids (and grandkids when they come) periodically to stay in touch. Exchange digital photos or videos. Send care packages to the college kids; they will appreciate the extra touch.
Consider volunteering. There are so many worthwhile organizations in your community where your talents can be used.
If you really miss your connection with your teenagers, consider the Scouting program, Boys and Girls Clubs or the Big Brothers group. Your local elementary school would really appreciate your help with childhood literacy. Visit Volunteer Match to find organizations in your communities that need help.
Be sensitive to your partner's anxieties. As mentioned earlier, moms can have a pretty emotional reaction to their own empty nest experience. Be aware of the changes she is experiencing and help her make it through this transition. If empty nest syndrome becomes severe, talk to your doctor, clergy or community mental health agency about counseling resources.
Empty nesting can be a challenging time for a father, but being prepared and having a game plan for making it through this natural transition can ease the pain and help you find new opportunities for growth and service.