Every fall, psychologist Karen L. Fingerman, PhD, asks her students how they think their parents are coping with their newly emptied nests. And every year, students express surprise at what Fingerman's research has to say in response to that question.
"Students always think their parents are doing worse now that they're gone," says Fingerman, the Berner Hanley University Scholar and associate professor of child development and family studies at Purdue University. "Of course, you want to think that when you move out, your mom must be devastated, but that's not validated by the research."
Students aren't the only ones who believe in the so-called "empty-nest syndrome"--the depression, loss of purpose and crisis of identity that parents, especially mothers, supposedly feel when their children leave home. Sociologists popularized the term in the 1970s, and the media have helped make its existence part of conventional wisdom. More recently, a number of psychologists have begun taking a more nuanced look at this transition--some of them because they themselves weren't experiencing the distress the popular literature says is typical when children leave home.
Now many of these researchers are busy debunking such myths as empty-nest depression and loss of purpose. While they acknowledge that parents do feel a sense of loss when their nests empty, they are also finding that this period can be one of increased satisfaction and improved relationships. And some findings even challenge the notion that an empty nest is hardest on women--if anything, this research suggests, it may be men who don't fare so well when children leave home.
A lot has changed since the idea of an empty-nest syndrome first surfaced. An unprecedented number of mothers now work outside the home, giving them a role beyond that of parent. And cheaper long-distance charges, e-mail and lower airfares have made it easier to stay in touch once children leave home, some recent studies suggest.
"The empty-nest syndrome doesn't exist in the way it has been portrayed in the popular literature," says Fingerman, author of "Mothers and Their Adult Daughters: Mixed Emotions, Enduring Bonds" (Prometheus Books, 2002). "People do miss their children, but, based on what I've seen in my research, what happens is actually the opposite of the empty-nest syndrome."
According to Fingerman's research, most parents enjoy greater freedom, a reconnection with their spouses and more time to pursue their own goals and interests once their children leave home. Parents in her studies report that seeing a child start down the path toward successful adulthood gives them a feeling of joy and pride. Most importantly, the parent/child relationship actually improves for many of them when children leave home.
In a study published in 2000 in the Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences (Vol. 55, No. 2), Fingerman interviewed women in their early 20s and their mothers, and women in their 40s and their mothers. The younger women and their mothers were "almost sappily positive" about their relationships, says Fingerman. Part of the reason for this upsurge may simply be the absence of the day-to-day stressors that come with living together and the contrast between children's often stormy adolescences and their emerging adulthoods.
"People may worry about losing their child when the child leaves home," says Fingerman. "In fact, they're not. They're going to have a more mature, more emotionally meaningful and deeper relationship with them to look forward to."
Other psychologists' research reveals another unexpected benefit of the empty-nest period: a renewal of ties with other family members. "The research is very caught up in the parent/child relationship and the marital relationship, but there are a lot of other important relationships," says Victoria Bedford, PhD, an associate professor in the School for Psychological Sciences and the Center for Aging and Community at the University of Indianapolis. "This is not to say that the parent/child relationship and the marital relationship aren't important; they're just not the whole picture."
To fill that gap, Bedford studies the empty nest's impact on parents' relationships with their own siblings. In ongoing research on a group of 66 parents who were between the ages of 30 and 69 when Bedford started following them 16 years ago, first published in 1989 in the International Journal of Aging and Human Development (Vol. 28, No. 1), she has found that children leaving home allow parents to come together again with their siblings.
Helen M. DeVries, PhD, is one of the psychologists who started researching the empty nest when her own experience didn't conform to societal expectations.
"Everything said the empty nest is supposed to be this terrible loss and terrible transition for women," says DeVries, an associate professor of psychology at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill. "I started wondering if I was just unusual and my friends were all unusual because we just weren't seeing our children leaving home as a terrible thing."
According to DeVries's research, it is actually men who are more likely to have a hard time when their children leave home.
In an as-yet-unpublished study of 147 mothers and 114 fathers with a child graduating from high school, DeVries found that mothers and fathers anticipate and experience their children's departures very differently. Although many of the women had been the traditional, stay-at-home mothers once thought to be most prone to the empty-nest syndrome, DeVries found that in reality they were looking forward to their children leaving home. They had started planning and preparing for the next stage, whether that meant going back to school, going to work or exploring new interests.
In contrast, the men in DeVries' sample didn't talk at all about preparing for the change, were less likely to view their children leaving home as a major transition and were less prepared for the emotional component of the transition. As a result, fathers were more likely to express regrets over lost opportunities to be involved in their children's lives before they left home.
Of course, says DeVries, all bets are off when the children fail to make a successful transition. One woman in her sample had a child who wasn't doing well; as a result, she felt reluctance about pursuing her own goals, guilt about her performance as a mother and a nagging sense of responsibility. Although DeVries is still codifying the qualitative data she has collected, she suspects that parents' ability to enjoy their empty nests is linked to children's successful negotiation of the transition.
The refilled nest
For some midlife parents, the empty nest isn't an issue simply because the nest hasn't really emptied. For instance, Linda L. Bips, EdD, an assistant professor of psychology and the former director of counseling at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., has seen a huge increase in parental involvement in college students' lives.
"I went to college in the 1960s, when our parents just dropped us off, said goodbye and said they'd see us at Thanksgiving," says Bips, who recently self-published a book called "Parenting College Freshmen: Consulting for Adulthood," available from her at LluBips@aol.com. "Parents are much more involved with their children now." At Muhlenberg, she reports, an ever-increasing number of parents are attending their children's plays and sporting events, becoming part of the parents' association and finding other ways to continue their involvement in their children's lives.
This involvement in children's lives doesn't end after graduation either. Empty nests are now refilling in record numbers as adult children return home after college or even after their first post-college jobs. According to the 2000 census, almost four million young adults between 25 and 34 years old now live with their parents--possibly the result of a tough job market, delayed marriage, high housing costs and other factors. In any case, says Bips, "It's not an empty nest anymore."
Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.