Sending a child off to college should be a relief—more time for moms and dads to sleep in, spend time alone together and catch up on those never-ending to-do lists that have been accumulating over the years. But the reality is often anything but blissful. Whereas parents anticipate having peace and quiet when their children leave, sadness and anxiety can easily creep in. And, perhaps surprisingly, men are frequently more affected by their children leaving the nest than women.
If parents initiated the process of separating themselves from their children sooner, the shock of an empty nest might be lessened. But nowadays parents tend to deny their children independence until the last possible moment. They insist on managing their social lives and educations sometimes even well into adulthood. Though we tend to think of parents of only children as the worst offenders, parents of multiple children are just as likely to experience a sharp loss of control and possible loneliness once the empty nest strikes.
Now, with smartphones and computers at our fingertips, it’s become even more difficult for parents to maintain a healthy distance and allow grown children to navigate their own lives outside their childhood homes. Although digital contact with parents can help ease feelings of homesickness for college students, it also opens the door for parents to micromanage their children’s lives from a distance. All it takes is a quick text or email and parents have the power to interfere in decisions college freshmen used to manage on their own. And when young adults are denied the chance to make choices—and mistakes—their journey towards independence is short-circuited.
Patterns set early
I have friends who were horrified when I put my nine-year-old only child on an airplane to spend summer weeks at overnight camp. I wanted him to be with children his own age, to fend for himself, to learn to make his own decisions and cope without parental interference, without a parental buffer. I have friends who still make me feel as if I am not a very good mother when I haven’t talked to my now adult son in a week or two. I feel confident he’ll call me when he needs me or wants to chat.
We all know parents who hover and mastermind their offsprings’ lives closely beginning with play dates, choices in sports and other extracurricular activities. Making most arrangements and decisions for young children leads to total dependence on parents. Throughout college, daily and lengthy phone calls seek parental advice on solving every little problem with a roommate, a teammate, or a professor. Mom or Dad calls often for an outcome report or to rehash the still sticky issue.
Sure, it’s great to call home from college for a recipe or to report a test or paper grade, but not to ask for help writing that paper. Conversations on how to navigate sexual dilemmas with a girlfriend or boyfriend are subjects more appropriate for discussion with a friend or sibling. In the end, when parents run interference for every single snag in their child’s life, mom and dad maintain control of their college student. Constant involvement is a very hard habit to break.
In response to an article on empty nest and a mother’s feeling back-to-school sadness, one son wrote, “If you didn’t feel what you’re describing, I would think you were a terrible mother. The problem isn’t the feeling per se, but the fact that so overwhelming many [parents] are unable to let go. As the son of a mother that doesn’t let go, I ask you all, please, let us go, we won’t be too far away. But, please, don’t place this weight on our shoulders.”
Empty nest is overrated—especially for women
When parents take charge of a child’s life from an early age, it is far more difficult to separate during the college years and beyond. The empty nest, initially manifest as a sense of loss for parents, can become excruciating for helicopter parents if and when a child decides to break loose. On the other hand, according to Karen L. Fingerman, professor of child development and family studies at Purdue University, parents who have given their offspring independence early on feel a sense of pride and joy when their children begin the campus or any away from home young adult experience. Fingerman, author of Mothers and Their Adult Children: Mixed Emotions, Enduring Bonds, says, “What I’ve seen in my research, what happens is actually the opposite of empty-nest syndrome.” Women feel closer to their grown children who have left home, they have better relationships when they don’t have to deal with the hassles of daily life living together. And women find time to renew their other relationships (including with their spouse) and personal activities.
Men are “less prepared for the emotional component of the transition [of a child leaving home],” reports Wheaton College professor of psychology Helen M. DeVries, whose findings agree with Fingerman’s. For women empty nest is not such a terrible thing, but rather they view it as an opportunity to move on. In her research DeVries found that men express regret for the things they didn’t do and opportunities they didn’t take to be with their children.
Seems it would best for parents and children alike, if mothers and fathers begin the pull back sooner, when a child takes that first step into a kindergarten classroom. Balanced involvement and guidance without designing and dictating on the parents’ part trains children to make their own decisions and learn from their own mistakes. By the time college rolls around, mothers, fathers, and children will be less dependent on each other and ready to progress independently with respect, encouragement, and space to go in their own directions.