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The art of living after children leave home

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Now what? It’s a question many parent asks when their children fly the nest. Empty nesters often have to navigate loss, loneliness, and relationship transitions before building renewed hope for what comes next.

For Michele Benatar, having her two children move out in the space of a year and a half was initially a shock to the system. “I felt bereft and empty,” she says. “I lost my mom when I was very young, so for me, it also triggered feelings of abandonment.” Though she works full-time and has diverse interests and hobbies, Benatar knew she had to find new meaning.

Running her business alone at home all day, when her daughter had previously worked alongside her completing her online studies, was particularly jarring. With her husband having always worked long hours, getting through the day became a battle. “There were times I thought, what’s the point?” she says. “I wanted to walk into the ocean and drown myself. And I had to fight it every day.”

Suddenly having an empty nest also means you start questioning the state of your marriage, Benatar says. “When you’re married with children, they become your focus and meaning while you’re trying to make a living and pay the bills. The relationship with your spouse takes a backseat to these priorities.”

Registered counsellor Dorit Israelsohn stresses the need to build a marriage that goes beyond your kids. Though some couples may become closer when the kids leave, the converse can also be true. “Many couples feel that they are almost strangers once the kids leave home, especially those who have made them the entire focus of their relationship. To prepare for this, couples should nurture their marriage all the time, even when the kids are at home.”

Your relationship with the kids also changes when they leave, says Benatar. “You’ve got to respect their space and the fact that they don’t need you so much anymore. It’s also about how you renegotiate that relationship amidst changing expectations about how often they’ll call you, when they’re going to pop in, and so on.”

Benatar decided to be proactive about dealing with her feelings of emptiness. “I do gym, ballet, flamenco dancing, and singing so after work, I’d throw myself into these hobbies.” Benatar also drew strength from giving back and working on her relationship with G-d, both of which have always been important to her.

After a wonderful holiday with her husband, Benatar sees this year as a fresh start. “It’s about focusing on gratitude for what you’ve got,” she says. “There are things you have limited control over, but you can control how you cope with change and decide to be solution oriented. Ultimately, the fact that your kids leave home and are functional, contributing people in the world is positive. It means you’ve done your job.”

David Levin* agrees, but admits that handling the transition after the last of his four children recently left home was challenging. “There’s a finality to it which is difficult, they won’t be coming back, especially my children who have made aliya. I find it particularly hard on Friday nights as it’s special having the family together. There’s also a certain vibe when your kids live at home, they’re laughing and rushing down the stairs, and that’s gone. But you have to put your children before yourself.”

As a father, he says he found his only daughter’s move to Israel after matric particularly hard. “I think it’s about fathers and daughters,” he says. “You feel like you want to protect your daughter for the rest of your life.” Though you know and support the fact that your kids will leave one day, it comes suddenly, and you and your spouse need to adapt as the reality hits and you realise it’s just the two of you.

“You can’t live for your children. You’re not meant to. We need to instil independence in our kids from a young age and teach them to make informed decisions. Parents aren’t here to make their kids feel guilty for leaving. It’s their life, although you’re always there for support and guidance.”

“While parenting is a lifelong commitment, we need to be aware that there are different phases within this role and be mindful of how we can adjust to each of these,” says Roxane Slom, a clinical psychologist in private practice. “It’s important to have a holistic sense of self that extends beyond the role of parent.”

We must acknowledge, normalise, and process the pain, loss, and sadness as well as the potential conflicting emotions that come with empty nest syndrome, says Slom. Often parents must navigate and process the five stages of grief, she says. “Practical ways to deal with empty nest syndrome include finding ways to keep busy, creating new routines, staying connected, and finding a new purpose.”

Emma Kahn*, a single mom of two boys, will become an empty nester this year. Though she didn’t miss the mess and chaos when her sociable younger son moved out in September, confronting her new reality and quiet house was strange. Yet, there are some perks, she laughs. “When I visit him, I get served and spoilt, not the other way around.”

Her immediate concern is finding new accommodation as her older son – who shares rental costs – moves out. “My long-term worry is loneliness,” she says. “I’m not afraid of being on my own, as I’ve always managed. I’m just unsure how I’ll feel coming home to silence as my son and I usually offload our days to one another.”

Kahn says she’s not sure if, as a single parent, she’ll feel the transition more acutely. “Some couples are in the same house but are unhappy and noncommunicative. I know I’ll feel a great deal of pride that I did it singlehandedly with no support from my ex, and have two awesome, well-adjusted boys.”

*Names have been changed

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