Melissa Drake knew the time was coming for her teenage son to leave the nest, so she joined a Facebook group for other moms in her situation, looking for support in an uncertain time.
Soon she realized that unlike many of the other mothers lamenting their former roles as caretaker and struggling to find purpose post child rearing, Drake was excited.
“We had a very tumultuous time, particularly his senior year,” she says. “In this group it was very hard to tell the truth because I was in the minority, but what happened was everyone who felt like me came to me and said ‘I feel the same way.’”
Now 52, Drake says her son’s departure from home offered her the time and freedom to finally focus on herself and led to a major transformation in her life.
“I was so used to pouring out for my son or my parents, but it was the first time I didn’t have anyone else distracting me from my own responsibility,” she says.
1. Embrace newfound freedom
While a 2019 study found that empty nest syndrome—which is not a clinical diagnosis—can lead to depression, anxiety, or substance use, an earlier study showed many empty nesters enjoy their newfound freedom and opportunity to reconnect with their spouse. The term empty nest syndrome seems to suggest that parents struggle to cope seeing their children fly the coop, but it’s normal to have complicated feelings as they navigate this transitional time.
Drake said after her son left, she was able to focus on her health and then her career. Eventually, becoming a life coach and author. One of her books talks about the healing power of dance, which she turned to as a hobby after her son left. She also delivered a TedX Talk in 2019 called The Dance of Collaboration, which focused on how collaboration helps to build businesses and communities.
Drake now works as a writing coach and life coach, helping others through this transitional period to the other side where she believes there is more joy and opportunity than many previously thought.
She and other experts say navigating this transition with positivity is the key to finding joy in the next phase.
“The empty nest is not a bad thing, it’s more an opportunity,” says Christina Daves, a marketing professional and host of the Living Ageless & Bold podcast.
On her podcast, Daves interviews women 55 and over who are finding success later in life, asking their advice for those looking to age successfully. The most common trait she sees among her guests is the ability to identify with themselves about who they are during and after these major life transitions.
“It doesn’t have to be this awful thing that your kids are gone,” she says. “You have a whole other chapter or several chapters in your life.”
2. Rediscover yourself
Jeni Simas is an intimacy coach and workshop facilitator at The Intimacy Ally where she helps couples reconnect after their children have left home. The first thing she suggests each partner do is go out and figure out what they like to do.
“I want people to find themselves and find joy in themselves and then bring that back home and share it,” she says.
Many of her clients remember they enjoy hiking, taking day trips, going to the theater or playing card games.
“Before, work probably got in the way of focusing on these things and children probably got in the way of focusing on these things,” she says.
Simas has found that many women struggle with empty nest syndrome compared to men, who have been able to cultivate hobbies even as a father and partner.
“Women are incredibly lonely and sad and they’re going through perimenopause or menopause and so emotions and hormones are all wrapped together,” she says.
Similar to much of the advice aimed at staying healthy and happy as you age, these experts agree that exercise, spending time with friends and cultivating hobbies are key to enjoying this phase in life.
3. Reconnect with your partner
Reconnecting with your partner often begins when you’re able to reconnect with yourself, Simas says. She suggests her clients try to find some common ground in their hobbies and begin exploring those together.
“I really suggest they date themselves and then redate each other,” she says.
Fun, she says, is the key to reinvigorating a relationship that may have gone stale after years of focusing on roles as parents instead of partners.
She coaches clients toward establishing intimacy, starting with simple activities such as hugging each other several times a day, greeting each other warmly and being intentional about remembering the things you found interesting about your partner.
“A hug is an immediate connection and burst of oxytocin,” she says.
While Simas knows of many couples who have never lost their spark with one another, it’s more common that these spouses struggle to reconnect without their children as a conduit.
“They forgot how to talk to each other when it’s not about the kids,” she says.
But ignoring the problem won’t solve it.
“Otherwise all you’re going to be is a roommate living in a house for the next 30 years,” she says.
4. Maintain ties with the kids
Dr. Avigail Lev is a psychotherapist, author, mediator, and executive coach with offices in California and New York. She cautions her clients not to chase their children as they fly the nest. Doing so can create the opposite of the desired effect. Instead of chastising them for rarely calling, thank them when they do, for example.
“The more autonomy you give them, the more you treat them like adults, the more they’ll want to spend time with you,” she says.
Instead, she suggests starting new traditions and making plans for family time in order to maintain those bonds.
“Establish new traditions that accommodate the changing dynamics of your family,” she says. “This could be a monthly family game night, a yearly vacation, or holiday rituals that can be adapted to fit everyone’s schedules. Consistency in these traditions helps create a sense of continuity and strengthens family bonds.”
Daves says social media has helped her stay in touch with their children in a way that makes the transition of an empty nest less jarring.
“When I went to college, my parents called every Sunday night because that’s when the rates went down,” Daves says. “But now I can text my daughter any time.”
It’s also nice because Daves and her husband follow their children on social media and feel included in their lives when they see a new post or story.
5. Seek support
Lev suggests opening up about the transition as a way of coping.
“Reach out to friends, family, or support groups who have gone through a similar experience,” she says. “Sharing your feelings and concerns with others who understand can provide comfort, validation, and valuable insights. Talking openly about your emotions can help alleviate the sense of isolation and provide a supportive network to lean on during this time.”
Lev also points to meditation and gratitude practices as helping her clients through these transitions.
Drake found support and a new best friend in the Facebook group she joined, which led to a new pastime of going out each Friday night to dance. Through her process of self discovery, she also found the courage to move from Iowa to California to pursue her goals, and changed careers.
But her son’s departure allowed her to focus for about a year on some pressing medical issues, including lifelong depression. She credits the Facebook group with creating a strong community for her, offering support throughout the process.
Drake’s son has since moved to California and lives nearby.
“Any time I heard of the empty nest it wasn’t a positive experience. It was people who had their identity attached to being a mom,” she says. “And I’m still a mom and I’m more than a mom, I’m bigger than that. And when I moved (my son) told me how proud he was.”