For Debbie Wright, describing the months leading up to her youngest daughter’s college departure as “busy” would be a massive understatement. Besides helping her buy everything she needed on a long pre-college checklist, Wright was in the middle of launching her own business—an auto repair shop—and moving in with her boyfriend. “I just couldn’t bear the idea of being in the house all alone, so I decided to move in with him,” she says.
When the day finally came for her daughter to leave home—a countdown that filled Wright with dread, not excitement—Wright drove her to school, making sure her off-campus apartment was safe and her roommates didn’t seem like total partiers. Then, she drove home, crying the entire way.
Wright says that she had been a single mom raising her five kids for so long that the idea of entering new life phase where she should “focus on herself” seemed impossible. “The transition was super hard,” she recalls. “Suddenly I thought, ‘what do I do now?'”
The change from seeing your kids every day to parenting from afar can be deeply challenging and isolating for even the most prepared parents. While many moms embrace the change open arms, others may struggle to figure out how to structure and define their lives without their children as a daily presence. The loss and grief associated with “empty nest syndrome” are all normal. But the big question: What do you do with them?
The magnitude of change
According to psychotherapist Hannah Starobin, LCSW, there are a variety of reasons why transitioning to an “empty nest” can be challenging for parents. “Even though you are still a mother, your role is shifting drastically from the day-to-day to something more spread out. It can also result in losing your tribe as a social structure, since you’re no longer running into other parents at school or activities,” she says. “A lot of women start questioning what their purpose is.” Starobin adds that because this life stage often coincides with perimenopause or menopause, hormonal changes can contribute to feeling extra emotional.
This was certainly true for Wright. As a single mom, she did double duty working full-time while raising her kids, and she says she’s still struggling with them being gone. “I was a very active parent, always on the bleachers for my kids’ games and active in their lives,” she says. “I wanted them to have every opportunity to follow their passions, something I didn’t really have growing up.” Now, all five of her kids are successful in their budding careers and personal lives, just as Wright had hoped, but she’s still struggling to figure out what to do with her own life now.
“I remember counting the days to each holiday or whenever I would get to see my son again.” —Rachel Baer
Sabina Brennan, who lives in Ireland and worked off-and-on while raising her two sons, similarly felt a void in her life when her kids went off to college. “[Mothering] takes up all the space in your head,” she says. “When my sons left for school, I cried and cried, and entered a depression. It’s really a form of grieving.”
Rachel Baer, who was a stay-at-home mom to her two sons, says even just having one of her boys move out felt like an insurmountable change. She dreaded the day her oldest left home and couldn’t even bring herself to go on the college visits. Once he moved away, she says she experienced depression—something she commiserated about with her friends. “I remember counting the days to each holiday or whenever I would get to see my son again,” she says.
Starting a new chapter
Starobin encourages women struggling with empty nest syndrome to ask themselves some big questions. “This is a time for women to think about who they are outside of being a mom and consider the things they want to do that they never could do before,” Starobin says.
This was a tactic that Baer embraced head-on. She focused more intensely on her hobbies, like gardening and yoga. She became so invested in yoga that she became a certified instructor and now teaches classes at a local senior citizen center, including chair yoga and yoga for people with movement disorders like multiple sclerosis. Her youngest child is about to leave home himself, and while Baer still feels sad thinking about it, she says having these new interests in her life helps. “I’ll definitely miss him, but I know it’s good for both of us and I think I’ll be okay,” she says. “I’m on the stronger side now.”
For her part, Brennan enrolled in a neuroscience doctorate program at the same university as her son. “I had my kids in my 20s and worked at an insurance company, which I didn’t really love,” she says. “I raised my kids to do what they were passionate about, and when they left for college, I decided to do the same for myself.” She also decided to become an actress (NBD) and after some auditioning, landed a recurring role on 160 episodes of a soap opera. But she says that it took her a few years to truly enjoy this new phase of her life. “Maybe it’s different for women who have their kids later in life, but I had mine in my 20s before I had a strong sense of identity, so this is really the first time in my life when I can focus on myself,” Brennan says. “Now I see it as a new beginning.”
“This is really the first time in my life when I can focus on myself. Now I see it as a new beginning.” —Sabina Brennan
Wright is still in a transition phase of her own. “I sacrificed a lot for my kids and am so proud of them, but I still struggle with figuring out what I want my life to look like now,” she says. After selling her auto repair business and writing a book, The Auto Girl’s Ultimate Car Care Guide, she’s devoting more time to writing for her blog and hoping to launch a YouTube channel. Still, she wonders if it’s “enough.”
That’s normal too, Starobin says. She acknowledges that these questions can be overwhelming—even frightening—and emphasizes that they don’t have to be answered overnight. “It’s not something where you should pressure yourself to think, ‘I’m going to sit down and solve this!'” Starobin says. “Just think about it slowly and start noticing what sorts of things bring you joy. This is an opportunity to do anything you want and can be exciting, satisfying, and vibrant. But it can take a while to come up with the blueprint for it.”
It can also be a time to focus more on your relationship with your partner; for many women it’s the first time in decades where it’s just the two of you at home, and it’s something many couples actually struggle with. “My advice to couples is to be curious about each other,” Starobin says. “Kids can be incredibly distracting and demanding, so this is your chance to date and have more conversations. It’s also a time to try new things together and have new adventures.”
Ironically, after several years away, both of Brennan’s sons ended up moving back home temporarily. They’re about to move out again, but Brennan isn’t as sad to see them go this time around. “After they left it was just my husband and me and it became a chance for us to get to know each other again, spend time together, and not have our lives revolve around the kids. It worked very nicely for us, and then they both came back home. It’s funny some of the things I missed about them not being home, even though they are very good boys. I love having them around, but I don’t think I’ll be feeling depressed as I did before.”