One Mom's Effort to Dampen Down the Media's Empty Nest Hysteria

My three sons are happy to leave home -- and I'm fine with that.

In mid-August I will be driving home to Chicago east on Interstate 80 in a van emptied of clothes, pillows, mini-fridge and plastic bins after dropping my youngest son, Colin, at his dorm at the University of Iowa. It will be my ninth, solo-parent college drop-off: four times for my oldest son, Weldon, to University of Wisconsin; four times for my middle son, Brendan, at the Ohio State University; Colin’s first.

Most people would say I have an empty nest. But I say for the first time in 25 years it will be full of me. And for the record, my three sons are happy and ready to leave home. My oldest at 23 is already self-sufficient living, working and earning a masters degree in Madrid, Spain. So for me, wishing to keep your children forever frozen in dependence, thwarting their separation from you — in essence assuring their failure to launch — feels just plain wrong. It is like keeping an orchid in the closet or a goldfish in my pocket.

The U.S. National Center for Education Statistics states that 19.7 million Americans are headed to college this August and September, so supposedly millions of American parents will succumb to the woes of empty nest syndrome. While I love my sons, I find it selfish and unnatural to suspend, delay or impede their forward momentum. Whose life is it anyway?

You wouldn’t arrive easily at this conclusion from the 168,000 sites that emerge on a Google search for empty nest syndrome. The onset of depression due to the departure of grown children is strategically reinforced from www.emptynestsupport.com to the May 2012 Educational Gerontology claim by University of Wyoming researchers that empty nest syndrome “may threaten the life quality of older adults and stability of society as a whole.”

And it isn’t just college that is a reason for leaving home. Many are beginning new lives working, moving in with a partner or friends. According to the American Community Survey of the 2010 U.S. Census, 10 percent of the total population of 309 million Americans are young men and women 18-24 years old, or roughly 31 million Americans. There are 114.5 million households in this country with children, or about one-third of all American households. Millions of those households will be “empty nests” for the first time.  

And parents and adult children are brainwashed to think this is a bad thing. Consider the Verizon Droid commercial of the mother crying so hysterically over the fact that her daughter is moving “4.2 miles away,” that her blubbering requires subtitles.

In the United States, our declared empty nest plight is another divisive tactic to wage yet one more war on women and mothers, and women against each other. If we survived the breastfeeding battles, working vs. stay at home wars, then moved on to the have it all or have some of it conflict, we qualify for the Empty Nest vs. Full of Yourself fight. It is Mommy War IV. No matter what stage you are in motherhood, there’s another, even worse stage awaiting you.

And yes, it is mostly about mothers. Fathers appear as an asterisk in the magazines, commercials and online commentary. And the economic health and emotional well-being of the adult children? Their input is completely absent in the propaganda. So while you as a self-sufficient 20-30 year old may be celebrating your independence, prepare to feel guilty that your parents are having near-death experiences because of it. And this is what you have to look forward to with your own kids.  

Empty nesters are warned they will endure feelings of worthlessness and sorrow that one site declares takes 18 months to two years to subside. Yes, children leaving home may affect many parents deleteriously in a very real way. But considering the unemployment ratefor 18-24-year-olds in this country is more than 15 percent, and the cost of college is prohibitive for many, aren’t the young adults who leave home for work or school the lucky ones? Then why the societal double message?

All this parental clinginess reminds me of the group Chicago’s mid-70’s song when as the youngest of six, I was off to college. The lyrics seem like a contemporary parental empty nest anthem:

“If you leave me now, you’ll take away the biggest part of me
No, baby please don’t go.”

Perpetuating empty nest syndrome is an ego-centric reaction to what should be seen as a privilege. The gift of a gainfully employed 20-something child who is not a Boomerang is the goal. The ability to send a child to a college or university away from home is an unattainable opportunity for millions of multigenerational households.

I will allow that some mothers — and fathers — are truly sent emotionally adrift after years of raising children, and I can understand to a point. But assuming all parents are still desperately pining for toddlerhood is just not true. And those of us mothers who celebrate an empty nest are not hard-hearted in our relief.

In her 2011 book, “Empty Nest: How To Survive & Stay Close to Your Adult Child,” British author Celia Dodd writes about the need to comfort all parents abandoned by grown children: “Where does that leave mothers—and increasingly fathers—who are devastated when their children leave, whether they work or not?”

This attitude may line up with the findings of a 2011 study by the Office for National Statistics in the United Kingdom of a 20 percent increase in 20-34 year-olds living at home since 1997. More than three million Brits still live with mum and dad. Like their Italian counterparts, called “Bamboccioni” or mostly male big babies, they live at home into their 30s, creating the generational and economic crisis of “mammisimo.” Are they staying home out of economic need or because they are afraid their parents will fall apart when they depart?

At 54, after 17 years as a single parent providing sole support, I am looking forward to being a spectator, not the managing director of my children’s lives. No matter what, I will never relinquish my completely impartial, cartoonishly robust, insatiable love for my sons. They are welcome to come home if they have a problem. But I have always made it perfectly clear that optimally after graduating college they will maintain their own addresses.  Brendan will graduate college in June 2013. Colin will graduate in 2016, returning home for breaks and summers and until he finds a job.

Earlier this summer I suggested Colin pick out a new paint color for the walls of his bedroom, assuming he wanted to move past the Smurf blue he insisted on years ago. Back then I had also painted white clouds on the ceiling over an ethereal blue backdrop. I will have time to paint his room this fall.

“Mom,” he said, “paint the walls, but keep the clouds. I really love the clouds.”

I know; I love them too. But unlike the stereotype of empty nesters, I won’t be sobbing every time I pass his empty room.

Michele Weldon is an author, journalist and assistant professor of journalism at the  Medill School at Northwestern University and a seminar leader with The OpEd Project.