POSTMODERN TENDANCIES by Megan Fuller
“Ah, there you are. The holes in the pit of my stomach and the center of my heart. I had forgotten how much you hurt every time I say goodbye to my baby. My philosophy of parenting is to give them roots and give them wings, but let me tell you, the ‘wings’ part of that philosophy hurts like a SOB.” – Facebook post HRM
Is empty nest syndrome a cultural phenomenon? It would have to be, wouldn’t it? There are some cultures in which children never leave the family home, thereby never causing a nest to be empty. Is an empty nest uniquely American? Probably not, but my guess is that different cultures will have diverse expectations.
In reading research on empty nest phenomena, I noticed discussion of empty nest transitions and empty nest syndrome. Empty nest transition refers to the time surrounding a child moving out of the parent’s home. During such transition parents may be sad, miss their child, and experience some stress over the child’s well-being; but generally, worries are short-term. If a parent experiences empty nest syndrome they might slip into “depression, identity crisis, and lowered health and well-being,” according to Heather Conover of Simon Fraser University.
In the past, it had been assumed that only mothers would suffer from empty nest syndrome because “women mostly gain their identity from their mothering role and usually have no alternative roles to take on” (Conover p. 19). However, as more women work outside the home and more men take on child rearing responsibilities, recent research shows assumptions like this are no longer born out in reality – even if the stereotype persists. Recent studies suggest that a parent’s mental health during an empty nest transition, and whether their sadness is short-termed or they slide into a depression, is highly related to the success of the child. “Parents whose adult children have problems (i.e. mental, physical, or stress-related problems) experience greater depression than parents whose children do not have these problems” (Conover p. 16-17).
Cross cultural studies suggest that parents do have different ideas about how and when a child should leave the nest. Some cultures expect children to leave for college, some expect financial stability, some not until marriage, and some at a certain age. However, the studies found that across cultures, when the child left the nest at the respective “appropriate” time, parents found the transition easier. When children left home, and the timing was considered “inappropriate,” parents had a greater chance of suffering empty nest syndrome.
Throughout Conover’s research, she found parents who were looking at the empty nest transition as an opportunity rather than a misfortune. Parents were taking on new social activities, planning to travel, looking forward to privacy and better financial conditions with a small household. Some studies found better marital relationships once the children had moved out, as well as, improved parent/child relationships.
Naturally, parents have some assumptions about how and when their children should leave the nest, as well as some assumptions on how having an empty nest will affect them. When I close my eyes and think about my own kids moving out, I picture myself jumping around doing cartwheels; but I expect I will be sad at the same time. According to literature about empty nest transitions, this ambiguity is normal; but when parents are confident that children will be able to successfully fend for themselves, a new adult relationship usually grows out of the empty nest transition.
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Megan Fuller is an applied cognitive anthropologist with postmodern tendencies who grew up in the exciting Pittsburgh suburb of Pleasant Hills and had the distinct pleasure of earning a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from IUP. In 1993, Megan moved out West to get a Master’s Degree. She also picked up a husband and hasn’t quite convinced him to move back to Western PA. To maintain her authentic Pittsburgh accent she regularly watches Pittsburgh Dad and engages anyone wearing black and gold sports gear in conversation.