The Nest Is Empty… It’s A New Norm

We had an unexpected event this year: our high school senior decided to skip his senior year and join Running Start, a program that enables him to complete the last three high school courses he needs to graduate while attending college. Our oldest will be 24 the month this article is published; our daughter is a university sophomore. While the 17-year-old still lives with us, we didn’t expect to have a quasi-empty nest quite so soon.

We had been planning, once the kids left the house, to downsize. A 3,000-square foot, five-bedroom (if one counts the office that was converted into a guestroom) house on three-quarters of an acre seems excessive for two adults. Over the last year we’ve been remodeling and updating room by room in preparation.

An Empty Nest Has Pros and Cons

Some things in life, like selling a house, one can plan; many aspects of parenting cannot be planned. As Lori Sammartino, of the North Hills, stated, “In parenting, you never know what to expect so you roll with it.” Sammartino’s only child, Zachary, started his freshman year at Dartmouth in September. “I thought Zach starting college and being in New Hampshire would be harder,” Sammartino said. “The hardest part was leading up to it and preparing for what was to come.”

She admits though that it could be because she and her husband see Zach every weekend during Dartmouth’s football games as he is on the team and they travel to watch him play. The games and his first quarter of college stop around Thanksgiving; she wonders when he returns to school in January for his second quarter and they aren’t traveling to see him every weekend if she might feel the distance then.

Bob and Lisa Weismann’s son Zack also started college this fall, at Slippery Rock University. Zack Weismann, from Gibsonia, said he was thrilled to start a new chapter of his life but at the same time he loves his home. “I definitely had mixed emotions about leaving. I was nervous about what college was going to be like but I was also picturing myself as some bumbling freshman who would struggle just to understand how the new shower I would be using worked. But when it came down to the last few weeks I was excited to move in and meet new people always knowing that no matter what my parents would still be at home when I get back.

“I was mostly nervous about my mom because she was a stay at home parent, and me being the only child, we were together most of the time. I was worried about how she would be after I left but we text each other goodnight every night which helps the both of us! And my dad and I text a lot too mostly about random stuff and new movies coming out and which professors I despise and love,” Zack Weismann said.

His father said, “Lisa and I have been married now for 20 years. We had Zack a little over a year into our marriage so he has been the complete focus and center of our life together.  Zack moving off to school created a pretty large hole in our life that we did not completely expect. While we had braced ourselves for the inevitable, fall came around and on Friday nights we looked at each other and felt that empty spot where in the past four years we would have been preparing for the high school football games where Zack was in the band.  Lisa is still trying to find a schedule and at first she says she still looked at the door each day at quarter to three waiting for Zack to come through the door.”

Wexford resident Lorrie Robbins, mother of a daughter who graduated from college in 2014 and a son who graduated three years ago, said she was looking forward to her empty nest and to her children moving on to the next phases of their lives. She said it was an exciting time, and she knew it would be a new phase in her and her husband’s lives, too. But what she wasn't prepared for was the silence. “All of the sudden the house was so quiet,” she said. “When my husband travels for work and it is just me and the dogs we realize how quiet it and it took a while to get used to it. At first the dogs barked at every sound.”

The Mayo Clinic’s website ( has this about empty nests: “Empty nest syndrome isn't a clinical diagnosis. Instead, empty nest syndrome is a phenomenon in which parents experience feelings of sadness and loss when the last child leaves home.

“Although you might actively encourage your children to become independent, the experience of letting go can be painful. You might find it difficult to suddenly have no children at home who need your care. You might miss being a part of your children's daily lives — as well as the constant companionship.”

The Mayo Clinic’s “Empty Nest Syndrome: Tips for Coping” article acknowledges that parents may worry about their child’s safety and that she or he may not be able to care for themselves.

Bob Weismann said that they now cannot keep up with if Zack is doing his homework, and they miss seeing him and his friends. “I have felt a sense of uneasiness not knowing how he is doing or how he is feeling… but I am blessed to live in a time where we can stay more connected with texts and social media.  Being able to just text ‘How was your day’ instead of trying to call him at the dorm (like my parents had to do with me) has been a nice advantage.”

Some parents are surprised by their reactions to their child being on his or her own. Sammartino admits to feeling a bit of relief in the fact that her son now has to be responsible for himself. “I'm surprised by all of the extra time my husband and I have,” she said. “I didn’t think that laundry and grocery shopping and cooking time would be lessened when Zach went to college but it is. And I don’t have to be home anymore around a kid’s schedule.” (She related a story about Zach’s pet ferret dying over the summer making it a hard transition with the closure of one life and the beginning of a new part of life for the household, but also stated it is nice not to have to be on a pet’s schedule either.)

Lisa Weismann added, in addition to having less laundry to do and needing less shopping time, that cleaning the bathroom is easier, too, without a teenager in the house, plus her house is much quieter.

One important aspect of having an empty nest, according to Sammartino, is that she is now reacquainted with her husband. Until Zach left home, she wasn’t aware how much stress having a child and/or an additional person in the house put on a marriage. “Now we have each other during the week…and we can celebrate our son’s victories on the weekends. It feels like a honeymoon period.”

Bob Weismann seconded that having an empty nest has benefited their marriage. He recommends that couples use the time they used to devote to their child on their spouses. “Lisa and I have been trying to make more time for each other; we have been finding activities to do together even if it is just playing miniature golf or taking a walk.  The opportunity for you to rekindle the relationship is there and you have to take advantage of it.” As an example of one way they’ve rekindled their relationship, he cited a trip they recently took in the middle of the week, something they couldn’t have done when Zack was at home.

Other parents have found similar positives about having an empty nest. One woman, on the website Grown and Flown, wrote a column titled, “Never Again Will I…A View from an Empty Nest”.   She starts by saying she’s sick of people telling her how much she’ll miss her son when he goes off to school, and she can think of a whole list of things she’s ready to let go of: quizzing anyone on vocabulary words, spending so much money at the grocery store, sitting in her car outside of school or the gym or wherever in the dark waiting on someone, uttering the words “Do you have homework?”, making plans with another mom just because the kids want to get together, or worrying about who is in whose bedroom and if the door is open or shut or what the rules of other parents are.

I look forward to the day when my husband doesn’t have to help anyone with math homework. He gets so frustrated with the latest version of math that is taught in schools and the lack of examples for the kids to learn from in the textbooks. That is the one thing on my “Never Again Will I…” list.

Learning to live a different life

Best-selling author Lisa Scottoline wrote in My Nest Isn’t Empty, It Just Has More Closet Space, that when her daughter moved to New York after college, that is when she felt the big shift (calling her daughter’s four years at school temporary and baby steps, as opposed to now when her daughter is soaring). She wrote, “And since I don’t have to make meals, take time to chat and generally live with her, the very structure of my days has dematerialized, and I almost feel myself fall to pieces, splintering in a strange sort of way.” But then she wrote that the pieces are starting to come back together “reconstituted and reconfigured, to form a new life.”

Robbins calls life with an empty nest having “to find your new norm.” She said that she has always cooked from scratch and hasn't yet learned how to scale down so she and her husband have a lot more leftovers. This is part of her new norm. But she’s also branching out to buy more specialty items for her and her husband to try, such as those sold by Trader Joe’s.

And she admits that the quiet house has become her new norm. “I’m so many years into the empty nest and have gotten so used to the quiet that now when the kids come back for a visit and bring all of the comings and goings and noise with them, I wonder when they are leaving,” she said and laughed.

Part of figuring out the new life or finding your new norm is determining how and when to include your children in things. The Weismanns recently celebrated a family member’s birthday and felt “a bit down” that Zack was not a part of the celebration. “We have been trying to find that balance which is hard in giving Zack the freedom to have his independence while still keeping him engaged in the family.  We are happy he is learning to be more responsible and less dependent on us, but we are always thinking about him and hoping he is okay and eating and making new friends.”

 In my own family we, too, went through determining when to include our college student in life events and how. In late August, my father-in-law died and his memorial service was during our daughter’s first week of classes at her university and her first week of work at her new job. We gave her the options of flying her home or of being FaceTimed into the service. We stressed that there was no right or wrong decision and that she needed to do what made the most sense for her, for her responsibilities and her life. The service started just as her last class of the day ended so the timing was perfect to start the live feed with her phone on mute. She said she was glad to see and hear her dad and her uncle’s tributes to their father, but also relieved not to have the pressure of flying home and missing school and work.  

The parents interviewed by Pittsburgh Parent acknowledged that even if having an empty nest is a welcome change, it is an adjustment. Some parents feel the emptiness more than others.

If you feel you have or will have empty nest syndrome, The Mayo Clinic offer these four action steps on how to cope:

  • Accept the timing. Avoid comparing your child's timetable to your own experience or expectations. Instead, focus on what you can do to help your child succeed when he or she does leave home.
  • Keep in touch. You can continue to be close to your children even when you live apart. Make an effort to maintain regular contact through visits, phone calls, emails, texts or video chats.
  • Seek support. If you're having a difficult time dealing with an empty nest, lean on loved ones and other close contacts for support. Share your feelings. If you feel depressed, consult your doctor or a mental health provider.
  • Stay positive. Thinking about the extra time and energy you might have to devote to your marriage or personal interests after your last child leaves home might help you adapt to this major life change.

And if you need more information about empty nest syndrome, more than two dozen books have been published on the subject, and though the syndrome affects both men and women, almost all books on the subject have been written or edited by women. These include (in no particular order):

  • Barbara and Susan’s Guide to the Empty Nest: Discovering New Passion, Purpose & Your Next Great Adventure by Barbara Rainey and Susan Yates
  • Coping with Empty Nest Syndrome: The Sensibly Selfish Way by Kay Newton
  • Facing Down Empty Nest Syndrome by Cynthia Macgregor
  • The Empty Nest: 31 Parents Tell the Truth About Relationships, Love and Freedom After Kids Fly the Coop by Karen Stabiner
  • 133 Ways to Avoid Going Cuckoo When The Kids Fly The Nest: A Parent’s Guide to Surviving Empty Nest Syndrome by Laura Schaffer and Sandy Fleischi Wasserman
  • The House is Quiet, Now What? by Janice Thompson and Kathleen Y’Barbo
  •  Chicken Soup for the Soul: Empty Nesters: 101 Stories About Surviving and Thriving When the Kids Leave Home by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen
  • Refeathering the Empty Nest: Life After the Children Leave by Wendy Aronsson
  • The Quick Fix for Empty Nest Syndrome: Fast Solutions for Busy People by Kay Newton and Pat Duckworth.

Jill L Ferguson is a writer, artist and entrepreneur originally from Pittsburgh. Her latest book, a picture book, Harry the Scaredy Super Seal, was published this month.