The Empty Nest Syndrome

I’m a man, but don’t let that throw you. I work full-time, write in my spare time, and I’ve raised three strapping young things to the verge of adulthood. I’ve been chief cook and bottle-washer, chauffeur, lawn-mower and friend-keeper. That’s because the mother of my children, my partner of 20-plus years, is a workaholic — in the nicest possible way, of course, saving her part of the world.

She has just stopped working at the edge of 60 and has taken a well-earned road trip. Now, it seems, she can’t stop doing that. It’s been over a month now, with her swag and a billy, just like in the song. She calls occasionally to let us know how wonderful life is post-work, and to say she misses the dog. Great.

And so I miss her, too. But I’m not sentimental. She hasn’t really left a gap, as her work days were always long. But she did provide a piece of the rhythm of life. We no longer even have her 8:30 p.m. texts to say she’ll be home in 15 minutes — nor her eventual arrival two hours later — to contribute to holding a life together. And one of the children now lives with her partner and another is leaving for overseas. The last, my 6-foot-5-inch Adonis of a son, is finished school and now working, sporting and generally leading an unpredictable life. In short, we’re all doing exactly what we’ve been growing toward for many years.

They have brave new lives to forge, and I have my freedom. To prove this to myself, I now do things like put the dogs in the car after work and drive to exotic places an hour away for their walk. Because I can. I’ll pop over to friends for an evening meal, mid-week. Because I can. Really I’m just testing the boundaries that have been so firmly in place for so long out of the necessity of raising the young ones.

And now and again, I’ll go inward and contemplate the new reality that I am no longer needed. Sure, I still make a contribution at work. I have good friends. I’m not bored. But really, if I fell off my perch tomorrow, it wouldn’t matter much. Not really. And it’s no one else’s fault, and no one else can change that. And so we have the crisis of meaning that goes with the empty nest syndrome.

A single Australian emu walking alongside a barbed wire fence in a field of dry grass
Emu on the side of the Great Ocean Road in South Australia

Like everyone at this stage, I have a choice. Do I take the path of least resistance and slide into oblivion and an inconsequential old age? I can look forward to grandchildren and nice South Australian red wines. Or do I reinvigorate myself? This might mean reinventing myself if I discover that the contribution I am making lacks adequate meaning. Or perhaps I’m on the right track, but still needing to dig deeper to motivate myself toward fulfilment.

I’m an optimist. I’ll be fine. I can sense an inner calling to seize the next stage of development. That’s because I have a wise old philosopher deep inside who loves the existential challenge of significant change. But still, at times like this we’re called upon to be bold, and that takes balls (metaphorically, as women are at least equally prone to this crunch point). If I succumb to the temptation of working for the sake of securing a decent retirement, I reckon this will contribute to a lack of meaning. The empty nest could easily become the empty self. Perhaps I’ll choose to practice elegant simplicity. Let the inner life hold sway over the outer. Get real about my needs. See if I have a bucket list. I certainly have a fucket list — the stuff I’m no longer going to do simply because I’m supposed to.

And as for bold… I was once in a coaching course and someone posed a question which she attributed to Buckminster Fuller. She asked, “What is it that won’t get done if I don’t do it?”

Now there’s a worthy challenge that just might fit the bill of the empty nester. I’m loving it already. Go strong!

Read about Garry’s one-to-one counselling