A reflection on the empty nest abroad, following a survey in the community of Expatclic.
The moment that children leave home to build their own lives outside the family nest marks a huge change for all moms (and dads ☺). For expat mothers the experience can be particularly painful. The empty nest abroad can be quite different from the empty nest when you live regularly in the same country.
In general, when the nest empties while the parents are still living abroad, the children move to a different country—some back to their country of origin, and others to continue their studies or work where there are good options for them, — which rarely coincides with the country their parents live in. Moreover, generally expat children leave home earlier than their sedentary peers – jumps of school years to adapt to a nomadic life and the brevity of some international programmes result in an early empty nest.
Often, a geographical spider’s web is woven: some children move with their parents, others return “home”, or choose to remain in their host country to continue their studies even if the parents move.
Expatclic asked thirty expatriate empty-nester women of different nationalities to share their emotions and strategies. In this article we will give you an overview of their experiences.
All expat moms prepare for the empty nest in some way. Part of the preparation might be a subconscious projection towards something which is feared but still has unclear contours.
We asked ‘How do you prepare for something like this?’
Here are some of the responses:
‘My husband and I talked about it a lot before it happened.’
‘I knew it would be awful but I did not know what to do.’
‘Yes, I had often thought about it and in theory I had tried to prepare myself.’
‘In some way I was prepared. Over the years I often wondered how my life would have been without my daughters, and I imagined it would be difficult.’
Other mothers have a more practical approach. Anticipating the void that will invade their lives, they quickly fill it in advance, and dive into new professional adventures, create projects, go back to study or start volunteer work.
It seems that for everyone it is important to mark the approaching moment by doing things with the children that concern their future: researching universities, finding out about their new destinations, helping them furnish their new flats. It’s as if plunging into practical matters helps mothers visualise the change more clearly, and in a way wards off the pain of loss.
When the Moment Comes
Then the moment comes, and no matter how much every woman has prepared, each one misses her children terribly. Even more so because the nest empties when women enter menopause, and this exacerbates the emotions. Apart from rare cases in which women wrote that the process was not painful, they all said that once they returned after leaving their children elsewhere, they had moments of depression, loss of self-esteem, sadness, disruption, melancholy, a feeling of great emptiness, an urge to cry, disorientation, dizziness, boredom, anger, helplessness, impatience, and a sense of loss.
The most common feeling seems to be the sense of emptiness and silence: no longer do children arrive home in the afternoon with their chatter and their mess, no one needs to be looked after, and the shopping trolley is half empty. But mostly, what is missing is cheerfulness and that special bond between mother and child.
The physical absence of children, not being able to touch them, knowing that they are living their lives independently and no longer need maternal care, can be upsetting, especially for those women who have put aside their career to devote themselves full-time to the family, such as this Italian expat mom: ‘The suffering was huge, I became aware of my great “dependence on children”, also because after my first daughter was born, I quit my job and invested my time, knowledge and skills in them…I felt my days were useless and without purpose…I had anxiety and panic attacks.’
Interviewed mothers generally said that when the empty nest coincided with a new destination, they felt relieved, because starting from scratch a situation in which the children had never been involved helped them feel less empty. For some, getting installed was a period of great activity and mental effort, which helped to distract and amuse them.
But there is also the case of this Australian mother who says: ‘I had always settled into a new country with my children and we had helped each other quickly make our new lives more beautiful. Without them, I felt lost, demotivated to jump into new social circles or even just to make the new home more beautiful. I felt a strong resistance to the new country because I did not want to accept that this time the experience was without them.’
Some responded that at first they were gripped by a kind of euphoria at finding themselves alone with their husbands, but that over time the feeling of emptiness crept up and infiltrated every aspect of their daily life, as this Belgian mother wrote: ‘The first few weeks went very well because my husband and I were very glad to have some time to ourselves without the kids around. We did new things, opened to the outside and introduced new routines. Despite this, however, the void slowly invaded me. I felt more and more useless and could not concentrate on work. I worked a lot but was not productive. I was always restless and I felt out of place. I thought I had prepared, but I had to accept the fact that reality was more difficult than I expected. It took me a few months to hit rock bottom and work my way back to the surface.’
So what can be done?
The empty nest give mothers an enormous amount of free time. Indeed it’s they who, in most cases, help the family settle in a new country, and accompany their children closely in the various stages that make up their experience abroad. When the children are no longer at home, mothers suddenly find themselves with a great deal of free time. According to a Belgian mother, ‘learning to manage this new time is the real challenge’.
Respondents had plenty of suggestions drawn from their personal experiences. The most widely shared is to get busy. Having more time means being able to calmly spend it on things that have been set aside because women were busy on other fronts. Without distinction, all said they started something new, or got more deeply involved in activities already underway.
‘I dedicated more time to my hobbies.’
‘I took up pottery.’
‘I learned a new language, and I went to the gym.
‘I have become more active socially.’
‘I went back to study and then I found a job; I went to the gym three times a week and then I started a book club,’
‘My husband and I started traveling more.’
‘I did an online course.’
It’s clear that at the beginning women will feel almost ‘forced’ to fill the time, and they will feel disorientated even when they do new and enriching things. Over time, however, these activities which started as a kind of therapy, become enjoyable and help reshape the meaning of this new life phase for the empty nester.
‘The important thing,’ writes a French mother, ‘is to talk a lot with your husband – he has a job, a routine, and colleagues to talk to during the day. Obviously girlfriends also have an important role in this new life, both those who have already gone through this phase, and those who are experiencing it together with you.’
We must not, however, block out the pain. An Argentinian mom explains that ‘in the face of this sudden emptiness, I had to mourn, accept all the painful feelings that it caused, and then continue with my activities, accompanying my daughters from a distance’.
And there are positive aspects…
As in all things, even a state of emptiness and sense of loss caused by the departure of the children have positive aspects. Everyone unanimously agreed that when the nest empties, there are three main benefits that positively affect the life of the mother and the couple:
1) Freedom from school runs and child-related commitments is seen as great relief and is exciting. The re-appropriation of their time and routine has a beneficial effect on strengthening their identity, because it allows them to listen to and cultivate their passions. The freedom from any temporal constraint is almost quintessential for the majority of the respondents;
2) Finding themselves alone with their partner without interference and interruption allows the couple to recover the precious space through which they live together more intensely. Although sometimes this scares or destabilizes, the positive effects enjoyed by the couple when the nest empties are much appreciated and mentioned by all interviewed women. Being a couple without children means being able to travel more, socialize more freely and without constraints, and follow common interests. All this has a beneficial effect on both the couple and the individual, who is enriched with new ideas and quality time.
3) Seeing sons and daughters cope in a life separate from their parents’ is a source of pride and serenity, and allows mothers to establish with them a different kind of relationship: children are no longer dependent individuals who must be taken care of, but they turn into conscious adults, with whom it can become a pleasure to relate as peers. There is also a sense of accomplishment in the experience, which makes mothers proud of what they have been able to obtain in raising their offspring.
And of course, if on one hand mothers lose the joy and sense of fullness of everyday life, on the other when children come home to visit, the feeling of happiness is totally intoxicating, and as such it is a treasure of immense emotional proportions.
The Expatclic Team