The empty nest syndrome is really a problem of meaning. People tell themselves that they’re feeling weird because they’re missing their children, and of course they are missing their children, but the hard to pin down psychological and emotional distress they’re experiencing stems from a different source. This source is the existential anxiety produced from having an object of devotion and orienting system of thinking, feeling, and behaving suddenly and unceremoniously ripped away from them.
We have written that everyone needs a religion to stay sane as long as we define religion as comprising the two essential features of an object of devotion and system of orientation. Can anyone deny that for those fully invested in the process parenthood is a religion, a vocation, a calling?
When that last child leaves home suddenly the object of devotion disappears from sight and the constellation of customary behaviors around that object of devotion become unnecessary. What we’re really talking about here is a lack of felt meaning, a deep and terrifying abyss of uncertainty where before there was certainty. What do I do now? How do I define myself now? What’s my purpose now?
Of course it’s not like parenthood ends just because the child walks out the door, parents are still necessary to their children in myriad ways, but modes of thinking, feeling, and behaving do have to change to accommodate changed environmental circumstances. And new sources of meaning in life must be derived to take the place of the old meaning that was derived from all those behaviors that made up the daily routines of parenting.
Parenthood is a tragic task, no doubt about it. The job has been done well when the parent becomes redundant, when all of that active concern and attention lead to the child’s ability to confront the challenges of the world alone. As Fromm once put it, ““The mother-child relationship is paradoxical and, in a sense, tragic. It requires the most intense love on the mother’s side, yet this very love must help the child grow away from the mother, and to become fully independent.”
The thing to realize if you’re an empty nester is that the situation has changed but this doesn’t mean life will be meaningless from here on out. It just means you’re responsible for seeking out new sources of meaning while adapting to a changed role as primary caregiver, one where you’re not needed in the same way as you were before but are still important and necessary in the lives of your children. If you let yourself grieve the loss of the old, and bring that painful existential anxiety around the sudden lack of felt meaning into conscious awareness, you’ll be priming yourself to move into the next epoch of your life feeling healthy and prepared for the new challenges that await you.