For more than two decades, Beth and Fred Knapp spent the majority of their time raising their two sons, Andy and Ryan, in Hebron. They drove the boys to endless activities, volunteered at school, coached them in sports and did all the other things that typically go along with being involved parents.
“The last 21 years have been focused completely on the boys,” said Beth. “It’s been a full-time job.”
That job changed to some extent when Andy went away to college three years ago. But in August when Ryan left too, Beth and Fred found themselves basically unemployed. Their kids are no longer a physical part of their day-to-day lives.
Like a lot of first-time empty-nesters, the Knapps are living a new normal.
“It’s sad and exciting at the same time,” Beth said. “Sad that there isn’t the same energy in the house, and I definitely miss having that instant connection with them. But it’s also exciting because Fred and I can go off for the day and don’t have to consider anything else that’s going on or someone else’s schedule.”
It’s largely a bittersweet transition and they are still trying to figure out what comes next after so many years of being focused on their kids.
For many parents whose kids have left home, figuring out the “what next” can be a real challenge, and sometimes it requires a shift in orientation, according to Dr. Elizabeth Kieschnick, a clinical psychologist in Hartford.
“It creates space and initially that space can feel like an absence,” she said. “A lot of people experience a feeling of loss, and it’s important to acknowledge that it is a loss. There’s the loss of having that person around, the relationship, touching base with your child every night.”
‘Who Am I Now?’
That loss also can extend to parents’ social life once their time is no longer structured around sporting events, school concerts and other kid-focused activities.
“I think the identity challenge is the toughest thing,” said Kieschnick, “trying to figure out ‘Who am I now?'”
Feelings of regret and self-doubt can be a factor when parents reflect on disappointments they may have with themselves, as well as with their kids. But Kieschnick said that it’s important for parents to forgive themselves for any “unfinished work,” knowing that they did the best they could given their circumstances and to recognize that ultimately their child’s journey is the child’s own.
“As parents, we do what we can with what we know and what we have at the time,” she said. “It’s the child’s job to take that and do with it whatever they will.”
Along with the challenges of becoming empty-nesters, there are also perks.
Now that Andy and Ryan are out of the house, Beth and Fred are reconnecting and have more time to do things together. They plan to take some day trips and talk about someday getting a boat.
It’s an opportunity for them to remember who they were before parenthood and, according to Kieschnick, that’s important. “It’s OK to celebrate those opportunities, to celebrate finding yourself and those relationships.”
Many parents tend to lose sight of their own wants and desires while raising kids, but once the kids leave home it allows them to be just people again. “It gives them the chance to create a new life according to what their needs are, which is really nice.”
Parents also have more latitude to assess where they are in life, how they want to spend their time and where they are headed.
“When the kids are gone,” Kieschnick said, “it’s a chance to assess what matters to me, who I am as a partner, friend, member of the community and to really look at the space created, and mindfully figure out how to fill it.”
The Relationship Shifts
Most important, perhaps, is recognizing that even though the kids have left, the relationship is far from over. And in some cases it even improves as it transitions from parent-child to parent-adult.
“The relationship is shifting,” said Kieschnick, “but that’s actually a wonderful thing. And that relationship will hopefully continue to grow, change and transform throughout their lifetime.”
The Knapps have already seen that shift, and Beth said that she enjoys being able to have adult conversations with her boys and is proud of the young men they’ve become.
“It’s kind of odd, too,” she said. “You’re used to them in a certain context and now they are almost your equal.”
For parents who find their empty house too overwhelming, Kieschnick recommends talking it through with friends or family, and, if it begins to interfere with the ability to function, seeking professional help.
Statistics show that over the past three decades more and more children move out only to return home again in just a few years.
“When you get weepy,” Kieschnick said, “enjoy the moment of calm before they come home again.”