Ever since my children left home, I have become unaccountably anxious and depressed. When they were at university, we used to see them in the holidays, but now they have moved out, my life seems completely empty and I am extremely low. I know it’s “empty nest” syndrome and people say I should do something to take my mind off things, but even though I’ve taken part-time work as an accountant – I work at home – I still feel wretched. What can I do? My husband says we should get a dog but I can’t see that helping very much!
Yours sincerely, Honor
There is a theory that when men feel anxious it’s because they feel they can’t do what they’re cut out to do in this situation – which is make a “flight or fight” reaction. Action of some kind is what relieves the panic and works off the cortisone whizzing around in their bodies. Women, however, it has been discovered in another piece of research, find that their anxiety is alleviated if they “tend or befriend”.
The idea is that if a lion approaches the village, men, being outward-looking, either rush for their spears ready to enter battle with the beast, or take to the hills as fast as their legs can carry them. Women, on the other hand, who aren’t able to run as fast or fight as fiercely, don’t do either: they think primarily of their young and make sure they’re OK, and gather around them a group of other people so they can all help protect each other from the threat.
You’ve been coping very well with your innate anxiety – no doubt present since birth – bringing up your family. Now your children are gone, you’re at a loose end, feeling pointless, worried and frightened. Working part-time on your own is not going to alleviate these feelings – if anything, it will increase your sense of isolation. Is there any way you can ask to work in an office to do your part-time accounting? I know there’s always a feeling of relief doing a job away from other people because you can get on with it much quicker, but perhaps being with others would made you feel more part of a network, more “belonging”.
That would deal with the befriending part of your solution. As for the tending – what your husband suggests isn’t that barmy. You may have an intrinsic dislike of dogs, but why not try one out for a while? Ask to look after a friend’s dog while they’re on holiday. See how it goes. It’s amazing how having something dependent on you can lift your spirits. I looked after a stray pigeon a couple of years ago, and although I wasn’t particularly keen on it, I did feel I had an important, if unwilling, role as its carer.
If not a dog, perhaps some other animal. Or perhaps you could look into looking after disabled children short-term while their parents had a holiday. Or, if you live near a hospital, having parents of sick children to stay so they can be near them.
Nurturing isn’t just a one-way business, as you know. The nurturer can get a lot out of caring for others, as some of their kindness and compassion that’s spread around, lands, like heat, on themselves as well.
One day, there will be grandchildren to help with. But even that blissful period won’t last for ever. Try to find some caring occupation that you can always fall back on, now that your own chicks have flown.
Find out who you are
You’ve done a great job as a parent, enabling your children to leave home and start their independent lives. It sounds as if you’ve always focussed on others and are now at a loss. You have two ways to fill the emptiness. You can find other people to care for; or you can give some attention to yourself. Who are you, really? What are your likes and dislikes? Did you ever have any ambitions or interests apart from home and children? Now is a good time to do some exploring and it would be good to take charge of your life before depression gets a strong grip. When you wake up, try not to think, “Oh no, not another empty day.” Instead, have a plan. Your husband’s suggestion may not be a bad idea. Dogs take you for walks, walks stop you moping in the house. Or how about some gentle adventuring? See a film, a play, go to a concert or learn to dance. Read a book that makes you cry or laugh (or both). Gradually, you’ll find what gives you pleasure or feels interesting and you can expand on that. It’s your life, Honor, go for it.
Enjoy this stage of parenting
Be proud that you have brought up children who have been able to go to university and are now leading their own lives. You have done the first part of parenting, and now is the next stage. You are, presumably, both young enough and solvent enough to turn your attention outwards from the family. Get a dog if you want one, but also explore other interests, both with and without your partner. Go on holidays, without having to worry about what’s happening at home. Socialise, take up or resume a hobby you were too busy to pursue when you had a family dependent on you. Before you know it you’ll be in the third stage of parenting, helping with grandchildren!
Stay in touch with them
It must feel wretched, but really the issue is simple. Either fill your empty nest back up, or learn to see the joy of your newfound freedom. Encourage the children to come home occasionally by inviting them on family days – set up the barbecue or whatever. Or go and visit them. Sometimes they might need nagging occasionally to remember to stop and smell the roses.
I filled my nest up with rescue birds that need someone at home all day to cuddle them. Only problem is, my son hasn’t left yet.
Next week's dilemma
My husband and I have been working hard all our lives and, now we’re both nearing 50, we want to have something of our own and work for ourselves. My husband found a café in a resort in Wales and is very keen to buy it. I’m not so sure, as it means leaving our 18-year-old son on his own in Kent, as he’s in the middle of his studies. He has few friends. My husband insists our son will have to learn to stand on his own two feet. But I’m worried. Having lived in town all my life, I’m also worried about living in the country by the sea. Can you help?
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