Motherhood and the Empty Nest

Lisa writes: This morning, The New York Times posted a wonderful article, “After the Children have Grown,” about motherhood and the transition to the empty nest.  The author, noted psychologist Madeline Levine, confirms what Anna Quindlen has often said, that the real empty nest begins the day our youngest child graduates from college.  Yet Levine takes a different look at our children’s separation as not a single moment but rather one more step on a long path of pain and happiness that is parenting.  She explains,

Motherhood inextricably weaves growth and loss together from the moment of physical separation at birth to every milestone passed.

Yet she finds that, in some ways, parents are unprepared for this transition despite the fact that we should have seen it coming.

motherhood, empty nest, mothers and sons, after the children have grown

Levine tells us that psychologists have rejected the notion of the empty nest,

Within the clinical community, the concept of “empty-nest syndrome” came to a halt years ago. Psychology rejects it as a diagnosis. Researchers suggest that it’s time limited, that it reinvigorates marriage and that it affects stay-at-home moms more than working moms.

And then she wonders, if her professional colleagues are right, why does she feel pain and real loss at the final separation between mom and sons. She is a psychologist and a writer, she does not fit the stay at home profile that we think of as vulnerable to the loss of identity as our children become adults.

But, and here I think is the crux, we know much about child development, we know the stages and the sign posts.  We are not surprised or fearful when we see unruly oppositional teens or tantruming toddlers.  Yet we act as though parents are unchanging, as though the mother who is handed a slimy newborn is the same mother who sends off a young adult.

We change with our children, we change despite our children and so much of this is unexamined and thus a true surprise.  Parenthood touches our identity, from that first startling moment when we utter the words, “my son” or “my daughter”, we are forever transformed.  And working or not working, strong marriage or not, as our children move on that identity is transformed.  It is folly to think that a career or title or anything else can replace the identity we feel as mothers.

We all want independent, happy, thriving young adults.  We want them to handle the challenges in their lives and we gain a huge sense of pride when we see them do so.  Yet sometimes there is just a bit of a twinge, an almost phantom limb feeling, when we see them doing so well at forging their adult selves.

I often feel that it is self-indulgent, or at the very least, self-absorbed to feel wistful about the end of child rearing.  If our children are transitioning to adulthood as they should, isn’t it a moment for celebration at their competence and maturity?  Isn’t it a bit narcissistic to feel bad about not being needed?  But Levine explains that with their growth comes inevitable loss and the cause for such pain, “What I fear most is that their childhood selves may begin to feel distant. And that the woman I’ve been for more than 30 years will slowly disappear.” As they change who they are, we are forever changed as well.

The twinges of pain we feel is for our growing and changing self and for any loss of intimacy we might endure with our now fully separate children.  It is not so much that we need to be needed by them, but rather that some of the people we love most have entered a new world. That separateness with a person with whom we once had almost none, tugs at our hearts.

No matter how close we stay to our grown children, no matter the day-to-day communication that technology has, thank God, enabled, there is a diminishment in the intimacy of having our children wake up in our homes every morning and eat dinner at our tables every evening. The lessening of that daily bond, even when it involves frustration or conflict as it can with teenagers, is a painful or at least uncomfortable adjustment. Discomfort, longing, nostalgia…these are all feelings we have when a friendship or marriage changes, why wouldn’t we feel them even more so with our children and our empty nest?

“Some part of me must have known that each move toward independence — from zipping a jacket to hanging out at the mall to driving a car — meant not only that my sons were more capable, but also that I was less necessary. And I meet this reality with far more ambivalence than I had anticipated,” Levine explains.

Levine ends her piece with an entreaty, “In order to continue to parent our grown children well, we might usefully acknowledge and start to prepare for the separations that start early and accelerate in high school.”  Welcome to Grown and Flown.

Read Levine’s wonderful article here.



  1. says

    i remember taking matt to see my grandmother as an infant. her eyes were bad, and the sun was shining in his eyes but she didn’t realize it. i wanted to pick him up but as i watched her, i realized it wasn’t her great grandson she was seeing, it was her babies. i didn’t realize it then but a little bit of empty nest travels with us our whole lives.

  2. Dorothy says

    This surely hits the nail on the head. I am so proud of my adult daughters and happy that they live close by but I miss them coming down the stairs in the morning or shouting down “good night Mom” from their rooms. There is such an emptiness that nothing else, no matter how meaningful, will ever be able to fill.

  3. says

    I think that’s so important to remember that we as mothers continue to grow and change as well. It’s easy forget, but when I look back at how far I’ve come and how my experience has altered me it does make me wonder who I’ll be by the time my job raising my children into adults is done.

  4. happy outlook says

    Thanks so much for sharing Levine’s article and for your comments. I really agree with Levine’s quote that you so aptly highlighted at the end. Acknowledging and PREPARING for the separations is so important.

  5. says

    As prepared as we might think we are for our children’s departure, I don’t think it comes close to the true reality of day- to – day living in a separate world from them. That’s why I love and treasure the opportunities to be together.

  6. says

    Reading this, at the end of a very nice Mother’s Day, spent with my son (who is the only one of my children currently in the state) has left me in tears. I write all the time about living a full life after the nest is empty, but some days, some nights, I miss them so bad I can hardly stand it. My “mother heart” is so full today – and it aches. This article is poignant – change is inevitable, isn’t it? And we raised them for this purpose, didn’t we? To have life and happiness and to grow and be good members of their communities, but still…..those days when they were underfoot……

  7. says

    The intimacy part is the most surprising. With my oldest living on her own and “visiting” every two weeks or so, the sense of family changed in a barely noticeable – but important – way. No longer is her home with us as it was even when she was in college, but in an apartment that we have visited only twice, since she’d much rather come here than have us come there. It is a strange experience that I’m still getting comfortable with.

  8. Sheli says

    oh wow. just wow. I just found your page today, and I am so grateful. My only child just graduated from college and I find myself still struggling even after having 4 years to get used to him being gone. He’s so independent that sometimes I think I may have done too good of a job with him! :) I feel so overwhelmingly lonely sometimes, even though my husband and I have a full life and plenty to keep us busy. Thank you for sharing this article, it gives voice to some of what I am feeling.

    • says

      Sheli, we are so happy that you have found Grown and Flown. We are two moms with 5 kids between our two houses. My oldest just graduated from college too – congratulations! Hope you enjoy our blog and thanks for commenting.


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