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Are You a Pandemic Empty-Nester?

April 15, 2021 by Coach Cynthia Luna

If you are a parent like me, at some point in the past month, you did something you haven’t done in a while. You dropped the kiddos off to school.

It was a month ago today that I dropped my son off to school for the first time in over a year. And it was just over a year ago (on March 12, 2020) that he returned home at the end of the school week for what we believed would be a 2-week hiatus from in-person instruction.

Little did we know that 2 weeks would extend to 30 days and then, ultimately, a full year. And what an eventful year it was. A year characterized by disruption and discovery, our lives were dominated with thoughts of a deadly coronavirus and the quest for a vaccine. It was the year we parents suddenly became our children’s best friends, educators, entertainers, and protectors of the realm. It was up to us to keep the virus out of our little bubbles and to keep our wee ones safe from exposure. And we did our best, at least as far as it depended on us - knowing ultimately that it is God that has the final say.

In the days following the World Health Organization’s elevation of COVID-19 to pandemic status, we questioned everything:

  • Is it safe to go to the playground?
  • What about playdates?
  • Are birthday parties still a thing?
  • Should I cancel summer camp?
  • What about that cruise we booked?

You may notice from the above list that my examples lean heavily toward childhood activities. If parenthood is not in your particular experience, then your questions, no doubt, would have looked very different. But, for me, above all things, I am “mom” and it is through that lens that I reflect on the year that was and the awesome responsibility that parents in particular faced this year.

Now, as things are beginning to open up and as our children go back into the world, we hold our breath and wait in the vacuum of eerie silence they leave behind at our respective households. And many of us feel a void in our children’s absence. I like to say, we’ve become Pandemic Empty-Nesters.

What is Empty-Nest Syndrome?

According to the Mayo Clinic, Empty Nest Syndrome, though not a clinical diagnosis, is a recognized phenomenon that many parents experience when their last child leaves home. Specifically, parents may report feelings of sadness and loss. The experience is akin to grief. There may be feelings of heavy emotions such as anxiety and depression. Alternatively, it may show up as a feeling of a loss of control, or a loss of purpose. And, finally it may present as emotional distress.

Though Empty-Nest Syndrome is generally discussed in the context of College-Age students leaving the “nest” for good as they go off into the world to fend for themselves, I believe there is a case to be made for school-age kids in our current COVID context.

So What Might Pandemic Empty-Nesters Look Like?

A good place to start might be the very place I started to recognize this might be a thing… the playground, one bright and sunny afternoon in mid-March.

So there I was, enjoying something close to a “normal” Saturday afternoon in the park when I found myself in conversation with a huddle of moms. The topic of discussion: Our children’s first week back at school.

The reactions among the moms were a mixed bag of emotions, running the gamut from pure elation and relief to wistful nostalgia and uneasiness at the unsettling quiet in the house. I was in the latter category. After all, for the past year, this helicopter mom went next-level on her blade-spinning as I waged an all-out war against the virus, all in service of keeping my son (who has an underlying condition) clear of exposure. And part of that strategy included having him as close to my side as was possible at all times.

While other moms reveled in the silence and their ability to “get through the work-day without interruptions,” I found myself missing the comfort of the background noise my son generated. Whether it be his full-throated enthusiasm with his classmates on Zoom calls or his game-play while on breaks, I missed the window into his world our proximity during the day afforded me. And I missed his constant companionship.

Then there was the adjustment to not having to be the gate-keeper during the day. I felt a subtle displacement by the daycare initially as it opened first, and now by the school. What was a helicopter mom to do? Was it finally safe to relax a bit?

Now that my son has been back in school for about a month, I am easing back into my pre-pandemic posture and I feel less wistful about his absence from the home. And, no doubt, I will begin to feel even more “normal” once I return to my office. 

But, in case you too find yourself challenged by this adjustment, here are some strategies that helped me (and continue to do so):

  • Check in with your child each day. You can use this time to see how the transition is going for them as well. Their routines have been disrupted and there are several new protocols they need to master. You can be a sounding board for the things that both excite and frustrate them about the transition.
  • Assist your child with their disappointment at not seeing some friends in the classroom. Even if they are ecstatic about their return, many are finding that not all of their “besties” have opted to return to in-person instruction. As parents, we can serve our children by helping them express and work through their own sense of loss at still not being able to see some of their friends in the flesh.
  • Be curious about your children’s day. Ask them about their day. Suggest they walk you through a typical “day-in-the-life” scenario. This will give you a peek into their schedule under the new protocols and, truth be told, can help you assess whether or not the protocols are being followed.
  • Appreciate your new-found freedom. Esther Perel suggests “We are not working from home. We are working with home.” No truer words have been said. If you now find yourself home alone again, make a habit to carve out some much-needed “me-time”. Whether a walk along a trail, or a lunchtime call with your bestie, or just sitting on your deck, give yourself permission to do something that brings you joy.
  • Cultivate new companions. If you are accustomed to taking your daily walk alone, invite a neighbor to join you. You’ll get the benefit of getting to know your neighbor better while also enjoying the benefits of the walk. Or create an online coffee-klatch with a few of your fellow teleworkers. There are so many ways to create community and, with us all doing so much in the virtual space, our communities are no longer bound by geography. So cast your nets far and wide.
  • Take a deep breath. And another. And another.

In due course, you’ll realize a whole day has passed and not once have you perked up your ears to hear what your little one is up to. And the silence will sound like music to your ears.

So, what are your thoughts? Could Pandemic Empty-Nest Syndrome be real?