Empty nesters take heart: This too shall pass

Last year, when she dropped off her younger child, Dani, for her freshman year in college, Cheryl Demas cried.

“I hugged her and told her I was proud of her but that I’d miss her,” said Demas, 53, who grows a little teary-eyed at the memory. “And then I went and sat in the van and cried, and then I drove and cried.”

And then Demas, who lives in Folsom with her husband of 29 years, Mike, threw herself into her new midlife career as a stand-up comedian.

“It takes adjusting,” she said. “I’d bring cookies to the young comics and ask, ‘Can I drive you someplace? I’ve got to mother something.’ That’s probably not healthy.”

Actually, it’s normal – so normal, experts say, that “empty-nest syndrome,” that wonderfully descriptive phrase for the period of grieving that parents go through when their last kid leaves home for school, marriage or the military, isn’t a psychological condition at all. The loneliness is real, as millions of American parents in their 40s and 50s who miss the college freshmen they recently dropped off, know all too well – but it’s not a syndrome.

It’s just a phase.

“Empty-nest syndrome doesn’t really exist,” said Carin Rubenstein, an Arizona psychology professor and author of “Beyond the Mommy Years.” “It’s an invention of the media, who think that women are devastated when the kids leave home. For most women, that’s simply not true.”

The notion that mothers remain deeply mired in grief when their children move out is a relic of the era when the baby boomers themselves left home: A study in the mid-1960s surmised as much, based on only a handful of depressed parents. By the early 1970s, the concept of empty-nest syndrome had filtered largely unquestioned into women’s magazines and the larger culture.

At the end of the “Mad Men” era, as the baby-boom generation entered adulthood, the consequences of ordinary aging were defined by what was lost, not gained. Midlife became a crisis, not just the middle of a long and happy life, and the empty nest was labeled a syndrome.

More recent research indicates that, past that early sense of loneliness, parents tend to adjust quite nicely to a child-free household. A 2009 study in the journal Psychological Science shows that most of the time, marriages are happier and more satisfying once the kids leave home. Only 1 in 10 mothers experience a lasting, debilitating depression, Rubenstein has found in her research, and most of them had previous emotional problems.

“It’s a loss,” she said. “If you’re prone to suffer from depression, this can trigger a bout. But for most people, it usually takes six months to a year to get over feeling lonely for your kids.

“When my daughter left home, I had to avert my eyes from her bedroom when I walked past it. I interviewed one woman who had eight children, and when the first left for college, she said, ‘There’s hardly any point to cooking dinner any more.’

“But let’s make it clear: It’s not surprising when kids leave home.”

A dark, empty house

Donna Griesmer, who teaches Spanish at Lincoln High School and lives in Rocklin, expected her two daughters to leave for school – to figure out how to live their own lives and, every so often, to fail and learn to pick themselves up on their own.

Even so, Griesmer, 57, remembers the sadness of going home to a dark, empty house the autumn four years ago that her younger daughter, Julie, entered the University of Nevada, Reno.

“My husband and I knew it was the right thing for our daughters,” said Griesmer. “But we didn’t realize how empty we’d feel. Your gut would have a knot in it. The energy of the house changed so significantly. The kids had been there, and their friends. We missed that tremendously.

“But we realized we had to reconnect with each other. I understand how people don’t nurture their marriage because they’re raising the kids. We all do that to a certain extent. But you have to go back to what it was that brought you together in the first place.”

Sometimes, long-term marriages can’t endure the empty nest, and spouses can’t figure out a way to be alone together again. U.S. Census Bureau figures show that in 2008, almost 25percent of new divorces occurred in couples married at least two decades.

More often – as Christine Proulx, a University of Missouri associate professor in family studies, has found in her research – people find a way to cope. Some find the transition bittersweet, but others are downright gleeful at the chance to reconnect with their spouses, their careers and their lives.

And rather than the empty nest being a problem experienced by moms alone, she said, it’s also shared by fathers.

“We talked to mothers and fathers alike for my research, and their experiences with the empty nest didn’t differ,” said Proulx. “Things are different at home when the kids leave, but for most people, that’s positive. They missed their kids, but they were proud of them and the choices they were making, and they were proud of their role in that.”

It was only a few weeks ago that Nancy Hayes dropped off her 18-year-old son, Taylor Hedblad, for his freshman year at UC Santa Cruz. She expected that she and her husband would miss him – the youngest in their blended family – and they have.

“You know it’s the way it’s supposed to be, but you’re coming to the end of a joyful time in your life,” said Hayes, 53, who lives in Rocklin and teaches art at Rocklin High School. “If I didn’t have a career I love and a group of girlfriends who have been through this already, and a supportive spouse, I’d be in trouble.

“We’re just moving on to a different phase.”

Getting on with life

And, as many parents know today, the kids sometimes return. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 36percent of 18- to 31-year-olds end up moving back home with mom and dad. That’s 21.6million young adults who didn’t let their families’ empty nests stay empty for very long.

Some of the reasons for that trend involve economics and employment. But experts also know that young adults and their parents relate today in a more compatible way than young baby boomers and their parents once did. Partly, that’s because widespread social media usage means that parents and their college-age kids are never really out of touch. As Proulx said, her students will post pictures on Facebook of themselves and their mothers out drinking, and they talk about their mothers as their best friends.

“How can the empty nest even exist if you’re talking to your kids five times a day and micromanaging them?” she said. “There are times I leave my classes shaking my head at how technology has changed the landscape of family communication.”

At its worst, that connection can morph into an unhealthy over-involvement in kids’ lives just when they’re supposed to be learning how to be independent in the world. Lisa Mitchell, a Fair Oaks licensed marriage and family therapist, sees parents in her practice who won’t let go, even after their kids leave for college.

“If parents are still totally involved, calling multiple times a day and texting all day long, the kid feels a sense of not living in his own world,” said Mitchell. “The parent’s anxiety projects onto them.

“It makes it hard on the kids. I see a lot of bounce-back kids who don’t make it in college. Really, what they’re doing is coming home to take care of their parents.”

The solution, she said, is simple and, for some people, so excruciatingly hard that it can require professional counseling:

“Get on with your own life,” she said. “When the parent focuses on their own life, the kid is released to be independent.”

Although Cheryl Demas used to joke that she’d be the Black Hawk of helicopter parents to her daughter, now a sophomore at Harvey Mudd College, she hasn’t done that at all. She has traveled with her husband, a technology executive, and has devoted herself to stand-up comedy, this new career she discovered only a few years ago.

Without kids at home, she was free to entertain troops stationed in Japan earlier this year, and she’s also worked in New York, Orlando, Fla., and across California. On stage, the former software engineer is known as Cheryl Anderson or Cheryl the Soccer Mom.

She also performs with four other female Sacramento comedians who together call themselves “The Real Funny Housewives of Rio Linda.”

Despite all that, she cried again this fall when she drove Dani back to college.

“I thought it would be easier this year,” said Demas. “It was just as hard, but it didn’t last as long.

“Maybe next year I won’t have any problems.”