It was a moment Lee Sherlock had been dreading for a long time. As a mother of four adolescent daughters, her friends had warned her to prepare for the heartbreak when they would finally leave the nest. Yet when her eldest daughter Jessica went off to college in September 2013, she cried for days on end. ‘No amount of prepping prepares you for that experience. I just didn’t want her to leave; it was close to bereavement. But at least I had my other three girls at home at that time,’ she says.
When her second daughter Amy left two years later, it wasn’t as hard, as she knew what to expect. But when her twin girls, Maura and Megan went off to college in 2017, Lee claims it was gut-wrenching. ‘We were living back in the UK then. Their university choices were at different parts of the UK – St Andrews and Southampton. The other girls could come home within an hour but for my baby girls (as I still feel about them) it was a long drive.'
Moving to Abu Dhabi last year made Lee lonelier than ever. ‘We’ve been expats before but I always had my four lively daughters with me, so it was much easier to make friends. But now I was just left to cope in a new city all alone,’ says the 54-year-old British expat.
British author Celia Dodd states that the transition period when all the children leave home, also known as empty nest, is one of the biggest challenges that parents face. ‘Yet its significance wasn’t widely acknowledged – in contrast to the wealth of support and information offered to parents of babies and younger children,’ she says, adding that this was the impetus to write her bestselling book The Empty Nest: How to survive and stay close to your adult child.
Being the youngest in her family, Celia had experienced the empty nest both first hand and second hand. ‘I was bereft when my older siblings left home; two of them went to live in Canada. I also observed how hard it was for both my parents, particularly my mother. That childhood experience has made me very conscious that the empty nest can inflict younger siblings too with a sense of loss.’
While her three children were growing up, she knew there would come a time when they would leave. So she searched books and articles for advice on how to cope. ‘Surprisingly, I couldn’t find anything relevant. At that time if the empty nest was discussed at all, it was seen as affecting women who cared for their children full-time, while working mothers and fathers were largely ignored.’
Dubai-based mother-of-two Latha Siby felt a similar vacuum in her life when her two kids left home back in 2007. ‘There is only a year between my daughter and son. During their high school years, I spent almost all my time with them, driving them around to different coaching centres and catering to their needs and requests. I was always on my toes and I enjoyed it. (After they left) suddenly everything came to a standstill and I felt lost, without purpose. Whenever I saw other children of similar age here, the feeling of missing them intensified.’
Dr Mariam Ghufran, specialist family medicine at Burjeel Hospital, says that such feelings of loss, sadness, grief or loneliness are very common among empty nesters and run parallel to the feeling of pride and joy for their child’s achievements and even a sense of relief.
‘Being a parent is a huge role that never truly ends – it operates around the clock and typically forms a key part of one’s identity and values in life. Therefore, when a child "flies the nest", this leaves a big space and role unfilled. The transition can trigger a sense of loss for parents and a need to redefine their roles and sense of meaning in life. It is important to acknowledge that parents often have expectations about how they will or should feel in this situation, which may be experienced differently in reality. This can cause additional stress as it feels unexpected or incongruent to their expectations. Some parents may even experience envy when seeing their child embark on the beginning of their adult life because they compare this to their own position, which may be perceived as less exciting,’ she says.
Mothers, who have traditionally had the role of the primary carers, taking care of their children for more than 15-20 years, experience the sense of loss more than fathers. ‘I have usually met women who come in with low mood or anxiety. Since most of them are in the pre-menopausal or menopausal age group, their hormonal changes intensify the grief and sense of loss. Working with varied cultures has shown me that most women are very strong, and they usually find different ways to cope,’ says Dr Mariam who has been practising in the UAE for 15 years.
However, there are fathers too who bear the brunt of the empty nest. ‘I still remember a father who was recently widowed and his youngest child had left home for higher studies. He was suffering from severe depression, denial and grief. He had stopped eating and looking after himself. We had to have him admitted to a hospital for proper treatment and management,’ Dr Mariam says.
For single mother Kimmi Vanspall, letting her only daughter Nikita go off to Hungary to study medicine was a tough choice. As a young divorcee, Kimmi had raised Nikita single-handedly. ‘When she wanted to leave, I had my entire community against me because of two factors; her safety and my loneliness. I was fighting a lot of conflicting emotions within myself. Finally I decided that education was more important. Since she is a single child, she needs a strong foundation to stand on her own feet,’ says Kimmi, who has been working in Dubai for the last 40 years.
After the initial period of angst, most of these parents turn their life around to enjoy their freedom and redefine certain facets of life they thought they had lost forever. In her book Celia describes this period as being one of self-discovery and creativity.
‘Couples need to find ways of reinventing their relationship, because all those years of bringing up children often mean that they’ve lost sight of the bond that brought them together in the first place. They need to get back to seeing each other as partners, and not just ‘mum’ and ‘dad’. This can be a lot of fun: holidays, going on dates, discovering how you’ve changed over the years.,’ she says.
Lee was clueless on what to do at first, but then decided to treat living here like she was on holiday. ‘Though I am an introvert, I plucked up the courage to meet some ladies who were meeting for lunch one day. I went along and had a nice chat and met someone whom I still meet regularly. I also decided to start a book club for women and started a Facebook page for the same. We recently just had our third book club meeting. I also go to the gym where I’ve met some other expats and now have joined an outdoor yoga session twice a week.’
As for her married life, she and her husband are beginning to cherish this next chapter by doing more sport together and going to the cinemas. ‘We are planning a holiday with all of us together this year and another holiday with just the both of us a bit later,’ she says.
Latha rediscovered hobbies that were long forgotten. ‘I picked up the paints and brushes left behind by my daughter. Like a keen child I even joined private classes to learn about silk painting, decoupage, flower making etc’. She also devoted her time to a variety of things: from lending a helping hand to sick friends during chemo sessions to helping people settle debts, and animal rescue missions etc. ‘It is a very gratifying experience to help other people. I also met a lot of like-minded individuals in the process and I feel I am in a good place in life now.’
She and her husband now spend quality time together catching up on movies they missed out – Love Actually, Slumdog Millionaire... Gardening was another common point of interest. ‘Within the little space we have, we planted a few trees. Even though it is not a big harvest, we love to pick figs, pomegranate and chickoos together. Hubby loves to see the birds picking at the fruits.’
For Kimmi, as a single parent all her time was focused on her only child and it took her almost a year to learn to live on her own. Now she enjoys the company of her pets and a few close friends and family – and of course the long daily conversations with her daughter.
‘Thankfully our relationship is still the same; we share everything. Every day I get messages saying ‘I love you’ and ‘I miss you’, which is wonderful when it comes from your grown up kids’.
How to cope with empty-nest syndrome
Clinical psychologist Dr Catherine Frogley at The Lighthouse Arabia sheds some insight on how parents can reshape their identity and find other meaningful ways to spend time in the absence of their children – while also remaining present and connected to their child. She advises:
1. Be kind and accepting towards your feelings. It is natural for parents to experience a mixture of emotions when a child leaves home, and some of these may feel uncomfortable. It is vital that you try not to berate yourself for how you feel in this situation, or start comparing yourself to others. I would advise parents to give themselves time to heal and adapt to this big transition in life.
2. Maintain connection to your child. This may include regular contact through messages, phone calls, social media, photos and/or visits.
3. Use support systems. Parents often cope better when they receive good emotional support from their loved ones. Know that you are not alone and that your feelings are understood and validated by those around. If you have lost touch with old friends, this may be a time to reconnect and/or create new support systems through activities and hobbies.
4. Plan enjoyable and meaningful activities each week. It can often be helpful to plan a few activities ahead of each week, particularly if parents are not in employment. As stated above, activities should be aligned to the individual’s value system.